Augustus to Domitian

The empire: 27 BC - AD 14

By a coincidence of history the Roman empire, at its start, has recently achieved a new geographical completeness. The campaigns of Pompey have led to the annexation of Syria in 64 BC and the capture of Jerusalem in 63. With Octavian's defeat of Cleopatra at Actium in 31 BC, Egypt too becomes a province. Just in time for the start of the empire, the eastern pieces of the jigsaw are in place.

The Mediterranean, centre of the known world (as its name states), has become what it will remain for the next four centuries - a Roman sea. And during the same period, until Constantine gives the city a new Christian role, the story of Rome itself becomes submerged in that of the wider Roman empire.

The rule of Augustus Caesar brings an unprecedented forty years of peace in Italy. With few setbacks on distant frontiers, Rome and its territories enjoy a steady increase in prosperity and trade.

The frontiers of empire are slightly extended. More important, they become stablized and properly defended. Professional careers are now possible in the army (recruits sign on for sixteen years, later increased to twenty) and in the civil service. Improved roads make it easier to keep in close touch with distant parts of the Roman world, and to move troops wherever they are needed. New towns, built to Roman design, are established in areas where there was previously no administrative structure.

The region in which Augustus makes the most effort to extend the empire is beyond the Alps into Germany. By 14 BC the German tribes are subdued up to the Danube. In the next five years Roman legions push forward to the Elbe. But this further border proves impossible to hold. In AD 9 Arminius, a German chieftain of great military skill, destroys three Roman legions in the Teutoburg Forest.

The Romans pull back (though they return briefly to avenge what seems a shameful defeat). The conclusion, bequeathed by Augustus to his successors, is that the Roman empire has some natural boundaries; to the north these are the Rhine and the Danube.

Within these boundaries the reign of Augustus introduces what becomes known as the Pax Romana, the Roman peace. For those within the empire this represents a real and unprecedented benefit.

Somehow, after the death of Augustus in AD 14, this fortunate state of affairs survives even the grotesque behaviour on the imperial throne of the descendants either of Augustus himself or of his second wife Livia. The Family life of the caesars, recorded in dramatic detail by Tacitus and others, has fascinated subsequent generations. But amazingly the empire not only survives this first dynasty of emperors (AD 14-68). It even grows.

The Julio-Claudian emperors: AD 14-68

The four Successors of augustus are known as the Julio-Claudian emperors because they descend either from Augustus (whose mother was a niece of Julius Caesar) or from his second wife, Livia, who is a member of the Claudii, another great Roman clan.

Augustus and Livia, married for fifty-two years, have no children of their own. The candidates for the succession are their children by previous marriages. After the death of three favoured heirs (probably from natural causes, though Roman gossip invariably suspects poison), the eventual successor is Tiberius, a son of Livia. On being acknowledged as the heir apparent, in AD 4, he becomes known as Tiberius Julius Caesar.

Tiberius: AD 14-37

Tiberius, inheriting in AD 14, continues the policies of Augustus. He keeps firm control of the army while showing due respect to the senate in Rome, and he behaves with personal modesty. He accords his predecessor divine status, but discourages any cult of himself as the living emperor. But in the later years of his life his behaviour brings him a different reputation.

For reasons which are not clear, he withdraws from Rome in AD 26 to live on the island of Capri. Ruling now as a remote figure (and decreeing the deaths of any who seem to challenge him, including several members of the Imperial family), he comes to seem a monster. His death is welcomed in Rome. But his successor is worse.

Caligula: AD 37-41

By the time of Tiberius's death, in AD 37, Gaius Caesar is the only living male descendant of the emperor Augustus. His two elder brothers and his mother have been put to death in prison as a result of complex plots over the succession. Gaius Caesar himself is widely known by a nickname. As a small child, on campaign with his father against the Germans, he was often dressed in a miniature soldier's uniform. The soldiers called him Caligula, 'little boot', and the name has stuck.

It is probably the most charming thing about him.

Caligula's short reign is marked by wild extravagance and brutality. A serious illness in AD 37 leaves him more than a little mad (though it is not true that he makes his horse a consul). The result is the first of many occasions in which the army directly intervenes in the Imperial succession. At an athletics contest in Rome, the Palatine games of AD 41, Caligula is murdered by a tribune of the praetorian guard.

The next incident is one of the most famous in Roman imperial history. A soldier finds Caligula's supposedly pathetic uncle, Claudius, hiding in terror in the palace. He expects to be killed. Instead the praetorian guards force the senate to accept him as emperor.

Claudius: AD 41-54

A physical infirmity of some kind (it has been suggested that he may have had cerebral palsy) has caused the imperial family to consider Claudius a nonentity. He has busied himself with scholarly studies, writing books in Greek on such varied topics as the Etruscans and dice-playing. But when Thrust into power, he proves a surprisingly effective emperor.

The empire is extended during his reign, with new provinces in northwest Africa (Mauretania), northern Greece (Thrace) and southern Britain. Claudius himself takes part in the British campaign, crossing the Thames and capturing what is now Colchester. He is so pleased with this achievement that he names his son Britannicus.

It is an understatement to say that Claudius's private life is dramatic. His promiscuous third wife, Messalina, the mother of Britannicus, plots against him with one of her lovers. He executes them in AD 48 and marries his niece, Agrippina. This is forbidden in Roman law, so he changes the law.

The niece, like everyone else in the family, has a scheme. Her son by a previous marriage is just three years older than Britannicus. She persuades Claudius to adopt this boy as his heir. With this agreed she poisons the old man, according to Roman gossip with toadstools. In AD 54 her 16-year-old son is proclaimed by the praetorian guard as the emperor Nero.

Nero: AD 54-68

In the early years of Nero's reign he is guided by wise counsellors, particularly his old tutor Seneca. But soon he feels free to follow his own inclinations. Within a few years his riotous personal behaviour is deeply offending the Romans, who are also unimpressed by his insistence on performing in public - as charioteer, lute-player, poet and actor.

And once again, in the Family life of the caesars, relationships are far from exemplary.

The murder in AD 55 of his young stepbrother Britannicus is hardly surprising in the context of the time; the boy is inevitably a threat as the son of the previous emperor. More unusual are the deaths of Nero's mother and wife.

In 58 Nero falls passionately in love with a married woman, Poppaea, the wife of Family life of the caesars. Agrippina criticizes her son's liaison and is murdered in 59. Octavia, as his wife, is an unfortunate impediment; Nero divorces her, on a false charge of adultery, and then has her killed. He marries Poppaea in 62.

Nero becomes so unpopular that many believe he started the great Fire of Rome in 64, so as to give himself the grandiose pleasure of rebuilding the city. The accusation (which leads to the first persecution of the Britain) is unjust. So is the legend that the histrionic emperor plays his fiddle while Rome burns. But the stories reflect more genuine grievances.

Nero's extravagances have drained the imperial coffers. His inattention to affairs of state is reflected in serious rebellions at both extremes of the empire, in Otho in 60 and Christians in 66. Soon even Romans are in revolt.

In AD 68 Roman officials and legions in Gaul and Spain declare themselves against the emperor. In Rome the praetorian guards follow suit. The senate passes a vote of censure on Nero. Recognizing the inevitable, he slits his throat.

There is no living male member of the Julian or Claudian families to claim the imperial crown. But the legions in various parts of the empire have their own ideas. For the first time it is realized, as Tacitus later writes, that emperors can be made elsewhere than in Rome. In the resulting clash of interests, AD 69 becomes the year of the four emperors.

Year of the four emperors: AD 69

Rebellion against Nero first comes to a head in Spain, where the governors of two neighbouring provinces have particular fears or grievances. One of them, Galba, believes that Nero is planning to assassinate him; the other, Otho, has lost his wife Poppaea to the emperor. In AD 68 Otho supports Galba in mounting a rebellion, but events run ahead of them. After Nero's suicide the senators adopt Galba as emperor. He takes the name Caesar and marches to Rome.

He then makes the serious tactical mistake of adopting someone other than Otho as his official heir. Otho suborns the praetorian guard. Early in 69 Galba is assassinated in the forum. Otho is proclaimed emperor.

Meanwhile the army on the Rhine has a different idea, acclaiming its own commander, Vitellius. His forces move south, meeting and defeating those of Otho near Cremona in April. Otho commits suicide. In July Vitellius enters Rome as emperor.

But the soldiers in the east are equally reluctant to accept, unconsulted, the candidate of another section of the army. In July the legions at Alexandria acclaim Vespasian, now commanding the campaign to put down the Jewish revolt in Judaea. Their choice is rapidly endorsed by troops throughout the Middle East and then by the legions on the Danube - jealous opponents in this matter of their colleagues on the Rhine.

Vespasian's instinct is to bide his time, meanwhile perhaps withholding the important shipments of grain from Egypt to Rome, but his hand is forced by the Danube legions. They march south in his name, entering Rome in December. In a frenzy of destruction they murder many of the defenders, among them the emperor Vitellius. On December 21 the absent Vespasian is adopted by the senate, as the fourth emperor of the year.

The traumas of AD 69 remain a cautionary tale to succeeding generations. It is more than a century before the death of an emperor is again followed by civil war. And with Vespasian, as it turns out, the year has ended well.

Vespasian is unusual in the line of Roman emperors to this date in being an experienced and hard-bitten old general, non-patrician in his background and already sixty when he comes to power. He has distinguished himself in campaigns stretching back to the invasion of Britain in AD 43. Even a past threat to his career might be considered a case of critical judgement; accompanying Nero to Greece, he is so incautious as to fall asleep while the emperor is singing. He narrowly escapes severe punishment.

He is the ideal man to rebuild Roman confidence, and to replenish the treasury, by tough and sensible measures after the chaos of civil war.

The Flavian emperors: AD 69-96

Vespasian has the great advantage, on coming to power, of having two adult sons. The elder of the two, Titus, already has considerable military experience. For the first time, in almost a century since the beginning of the empire, the question of the succession need not be a pressing affair of state. In the event both sons follow Vespasian on the throne, the three of them being known (from their family name of Flavius) as the Flavian emperors.

While frugal in his own life, and unflinching in his raising of taxes, Vespasian also knows how to please the Romans. His most lavish undertaking is the building of the Flavian amphitheatre, known to history as the Colosseum.

On his accession Vespasian entrusts the important Jewish war, previously his own concern, to his son Titus. In AD 70 Titus captures and sacks Jerusalem, destroying the Temple and bearing off its treasures - including the sacred menorah, or seven-branched candelabrum, as depicted in the triumphal Arch of Titus in Rome.

Other frontier districts are forcibly pacified in a similar manner, with the result that after ten years of rule Vespasian bequeaths to his son a Roman empire in better order than at any time since the early part of the century.

In a short reign of only two years, from 79 to 81, Titus makes himself extremely popular. Part of the reason is lavish expenditure in the capital, but the same generosity is applied to two disasters which fall in this period. Pompeii and the surrounding district is buried under the ashes of Vesuvius in 79, and Rome suffers another major fire in 80. On both occasions Titus responds with prompt and effective support.

His brother Domitian, in a longer reign (81-96), leaves a less glowing reputation. One reason is an inclination towards an oriental style of divine monarchy. His effigy begins to appear among those of the gods, and he insists on being addressed as dominus et deus (master and god).

The later years of Domitian's reign are also marked by unpredictable and cruel acts which amount, by the end, to a reign of a terror. They provoke a response from commanders of the praetorian guard in league with the emperor's wife, Domitia. In 96, having secured the compliance of a safe successor (the elderly statesman Nerva, certain to be acceptable to the senate), they arrange for the emperor's assassination.

Nerva, entering office as an elderly caretaker, has one overriding responsibility - to find a worth successor. He does so, triumphantly, in Trajan.

Trajan to Constantine

Trajan: AD 98-117

When Trajan is selected by Nerva as his heir, in October 97, he is in command of the province of upper Germany. Less than three months later, Nerva is dead. But this time there is no crisis. The Roman empire has acquired a new maturity. Thirty years earlier, after the death of Nero, the Succession was decided by armies marching on Rome. Now Trajan is able to spend the first year of his rule on a tour of inspection of the Roman legions on the Rhine and the Danube. It is an area in which he plans an important campaign.

Trajan is in his element among soldiers. Born in Spain (he is the first Roman emperor of non-Italian descent), his career has been spent with legions in Syria, Spain and Germany. But he proves himself a brilliant politician as well.

When Trajan returns to Rome, in 99, he enters the city without pomp, on foot, and immediately establishes an excellent relationship with the senate. He makes his imperial intentions and requirements perfectly plain, but at least he consults the senators. It is an approach which wins him the title Optimus ('best man', with its implication that he leads on the basis of merit rather than rank). Characteristically, he refuses to adopt this description officially until many years later, in 114.

In 101 Trajan is ready for the campaign which he was plotting before his return to Rome. He marches north and east, towards the region known to the Romans as Dacia - north of the Danube, bordering the Black Sea.

There are two good reasons for Trajan's interest in subduing this area. One is revenge; the Dacians, led by a powerful ruler, Decebalus, inflicted a major defeat on a Roman army sent out by Domitian in 86. The other is greed; the territory includes some famous gold mines.

In two campaigns (101-2, 105-6) Dacia is crushed and brought firmly within the empire; the modern name of the region, Romania, reflects Rome's success. Great wealth is brought back to the capital to fund Trajan's building programme. It is the Dacian wars which are depicted in such vivid detail on Trajan's column.

The emperor's public works in Rome, mainly carried out in the years after the Dacian wars, include practical amenities such as baths and aqueducts. But the centrepiece is ancient Rome's largest public space, the rectangular Forum of Trajan which includes along its sides a great assembly hall, two libraries and a temple, and which has at its centre the 30-metre-high marble column of Trajan. The forum is dedicated by Trajan in AD 112. It turns out to be his last full year in Rome.

News comes that the Parthians, violating a treaty, have interfered in the affairs of Armenia. In 113, at the age of sixty, the soldier emperor heads east again.

The eastern campaign: AD 113-117

Within two months Trajan is in Antioch, joining the Roman legions stationed in the Middle East. Early in 114 Armenia, until now a vassal kingdom of Rome, is annexed as a Roman province. The purpose of the campaign has been achieved, but Trajan decides to press on - welcoming the challenge of a confrontation with Rome's rival empire to the east, Parthia.

Like Armenia, the territories along the Euphrates are kingdoms, but these are undeniably vassals of Parthia. Trajan's marching against them is an act of war. They all capitulate. The region is annexed as another new Roman province, Mesopotamia. Trajan's reputation in Rome reaches new heights, and he formally accepts - at last - the title of 'best man', Optimus.

The following year, 115, he is tempted to go even further. He captures the Parthian capital at Ctesiphon and advances down the Tigris to the Persian Gulf. This is the furthest that the empire has ever extended, and it is a province too far. An uprising in his rear, in support of Parthia, causes Trajan to withdraw - leaving his cousin Hadrian in command of Mesopotamia.

Trajan is on his way back to Rome in 117 when he dies, in southern Turkey. He names Hadrian as his successor.

Hadrian: AD 117-138

Once again the imperial crown is passed on without civil war, though Hadrian's excution of four of Trajan's senior colleagues on a charge of conspiracy implies a degree of opposition. Strategically, Hadrian decides that Trajan's new additions to the empire are untenable. He abandons the provinces of Armenia and Mesopotamia, restoring the Euphrates to its previous role as Rome's eastern border.

It is almost a year before Hadrian returns to Rome, where he buys popularity by cancelling all personal debts to the state. But his real interest remains in the distant provinces of the empire. He is not involved in any major wars, but he is away from Rome for no less than twelve of his twenty years in power.

Hadrian's interest in securing the frontiers of a viable empire is demonstrated in the Great wall which bears his name. He orders its construction when visiting Britain in AD 122. He also commissions another great defensive work, a fortified palisade stretching more than 250 miles to link the two great natural barriers of central Europe, the Rhine and the Danube.

In this policy of strengthening outlying areas of empire, one of Hadrian's undertakings has disastrous results. In the Middle East, in 130, he gives orders for a strong new Roman city, Aelia Capitolina, to be built on the site of Jerusalem, which was devastated sixty years earlier when captured by Titus.

On the ruined Temple mount there is to be a shrine to Jupiter, in which Hadrian himself will be honoured. Jewish opposition to this sacrilege is led by Simon Bar-Cochba, calling himself the prince of Israel. Simon's prestige increases dramatically when a leading rabbi recognizes him as the Messiah. In 132 his Jewish forces defeat a Roman legion and capture Jerusalem.

Not till 135, after a large army has been sent to regain control, is Jerusalem recovered by the Romans. In a bitter campaign, fought village by village throughout the region, half a million lives are lost. The whole area of Palestine is devastated. Aelia Capitolina becomes, for the moment, an unimportant provincial town.

Hadrian's efforts at building are more successful nearer home. Three great architectural monuments, in and around Rome, are connected with him. The magnificent domed Pantheon derives entirely, in its present form, from his rebuilding of an earlier temple on the site. His mausoleum, begun in 135 and completed just after his death, now forms the great circular base of the Castel Sant'Angelo.

Northeast of Rome, near Tivoli, are the remains of the complex of buildings, vistas and gardens which Hadrian spends ten years constructing (125-135). It is the outstanding example of one of the characteristic architectural delights of the empire, the Roman villa.

Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius: AD 138-180

There are two more rulers in a group later known as the 'five good emperors'. Hadrian has no children. He selects as his successor a respected senator, Antoninus Pius, insisting at the same time that Antoninus designate Marcus aurelius, a talented young member of the ruling class who is as yet only 17, as next in line of succession.

Both men assume power without unrest, in AD 138 and 161. The equestrian statue of Marcus aurelius on the Capitol, one of the first of its kind, has a confident air of quiet authority. But his rule is interrupted by constant warfare on the northern and eastern borders, and in 165-6 a Roman army brings back from Mesopotamia a devastating plague. Almost as damaging, Marcus aurelius - unlike his predecessors - has a young son.

Commodus and the lapse into anarchy: AD 180-284

Over a span of eighty years four successive emperors - Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius - have been selected on merit. Commodus, in the more normal manner of royalty, is his father's son. When he succeeds Marcus Aurelius, in AD 180, he is eighteen years old.

The recent years of plague and warfare (including even a brief invasion of northern Italy by barbarian tribes) have left the empire in an unsettled state. The reign of Commodus would anyway have been difficult. It is made more so by his own behaviour, which scandalizes Rome as nothing has done since the rather similar habits of Nero. The death of the emperor is in keeping with his life.

During the last night of AD 192 Commodus is strangled in his sleep by a wrestler. His violent end is not surprising, since the emperor has recently been spending much of his time in the company of gladiators and he likes to dress as Hercules. Indeed on the very next day Commodus was intending to proclaim himself consul, wearing the outfit of a gladiator.

Everyone recognizes that the man is mad - even his mistress, Marcia, who arranges access for the assassin. The senate is standing by to proclaim a new emperor, a veteran soldier by the name of Pertinax, before the praetorian guards wake at dawn.

The assassination, involving the emperor's consort and with the senate ready for prompt action, closely echoes the last occasion when an emperor was murdered. Domitian was then the victim, and his death introduced the century of stability which the present murder ends. This time it is only three months before the unfortunate Pertinax is himself killed, in March 193.

The pattern is set for the rapid decline of the Roman empire into anarchy in the 3rd century AD. During a spell of fifty years in the middle of that century (235-84) there are more than twenty emperors. All but one of them die by violence.

The weakness of Rome: 3rd century AD

The chaos at the centre of the empire is reflected in a decline of imperial control. This brings certain benefits to the provinces (in AD 212 Caracalla drastically reduces the special prestige of Italy by granting Roman citizenship to all freeborn inhabitants of the empire), but it also exposes the frontier regions of the empire to ever-increasing incursions from Barbarian neighbours.

Even where the barbarians are kept at bay, there is a loss of central authority. Commanders in the more remote provinces begin to behave almost as independent rulers, paying scant attention to Rome.

One response to this decline is an attempt to reinvigorate the empire by a return to traditional Roman values. In AD 250 the emperor Decius decrees that every citizen is to perform a religious sacrifice to the Roman gods in the presence of a commissioner, who will issue an appropriate certificate of compliance. Christians, refusing on principle to comply, find themselves in a direct clash with the state and suffer accordingly.

The emperor Valerian maintains the same religious policy but also introduces, in 253, an adminsistrative reform which will have lasting effects. He splits the empire into two zones of responsibility, east and west.

Valerian appoints his son Gallienus as co-emperor. Gallienus is put in charge of the western empire, with responsibility for holding the frontiers on the Rhine and Danube. Valerian marches east to tackle the permanent threat from Persia.

Valerian has little success (in 260 he is captured by the Persians and dies a prisoner), and his solution of shared rule is not followed by his immediate successors. But it is adopted by Diocletian, the man who restores the Roman empire to stability. Thereafter it becomes the normal arrangement for the best part of two centuries.

The reforms of Diocletian: AD 284

Diocletian, commanding an army near the Bosphorus, is proclaimed emperor by his own troops when news comes in AD 284 that his predecessor has been murdered. He marches west, killing a rival claimant in battle in 285. The sequence of events reflects many previous occasions in this century, when usurpers, supported by their own armies, have laid claim to the throne. But Diocletian breaks this pattern of anarchy.

He is fortunate in that the frontiers of empire have recently been pushed back to their well established lines in the north and the east. He uses an unusual period of stablity to introduce a bold and but highly schematic reform in the administration of the empire.

He not only divides the empire geographically into east and west (following the example of Valerian). He even divides the traditional imperial title, Augustus Caesar, into two ranks - a senior one, Augustus, and a junior Caesar.

He appoints his friend Maximian as co-emperor, giving him the western empire and the title Augustus. Officially Diocletian and Maximian are to be equal, but a subtle addition to the title makes plain who is in charge. Diocletian in the east is now Augustus Jovius, representing Jupiter on earth. Maximian in the west is Augustus Herculius, standing in for Hercules. As any Roman knows, Hercules is a muscular hero; but the supreme god is Jupiter.

Seven years later, in AD 292, each Augustus acquires a Caesar as a lieutenant. Galerius is appointed to serve with Diocletian in the east, Constantius with Maximian in the west. Each Caesar marries the daughter of his Augustus. Each has the status of co-emperor.

With Diocletian himself at the head of the team, this quartet - based on friendship and marriage - succeeds admirably in holding together the empire (though as late as 303 the Christians suddenly suffer a new and extreme wave of persecution). All four men, like nearly all the emperors of this period, come from humble or peasant backgrounds. They are leaders of strong practical experience, who have proved themselves in military campaigns.

But Diocletian is over-optimistic in expecting this blueprint of government to survive his own departure. In AD 305 he falls ill and resigns as Augustus. He insists that Maximian does the same, enabling him to promote the two Caesars to the rank of Augustus and to appoint two more Caesars.

On paper it looks logical, but in the remaining years of his life Diocletian sees his careful edifice crumble. In 306 Constantius, the Augustus of the west, suddenly dies. His troops proclaim his son Constantine as Augustus in his place. But others, elsewhere, have other ideas. By 308 no fewer than six men are claiming to be Augustus. A familiar pattern of the Roman empire is recurring. Civil war is inevitable.

Constantine: AD 306-337

Constantine is probably in his twenties in AD 306 when his father, Constantius, dies at York. For most of the past ten years the young man has been at the court of Diocletian. But he has joined his father's camp in the previous year, 305, after the promotion of Constantius to the post of Augustus in the west. Constantine is therefore known to the legions in Britain. In 306, contrary to orders from the centre of empire, they proclaim him Augustus.

Compromises are made, giving Constantine rule over Britain and Gaul. But as more claimants emerge, Constantine gambles on a bigger share of power. In 312 he marches south and invades Italy.

Christian Rome

Battle of the Milvian Bridge: AD 312

A mysterious decision by Constantine in October 312 can be seen now as one of the great turning points of history. He is camped just north of Rome, about to do battle with his rival for control of the western empire. He decides that his men shall wear on their shields a Christian symbol - the monogram known as the Chi-Rho, formed from the first two Greek letters of the word Christ.

Constantine wins the battle of the Milvian Bridge. His rival dies fleeing back over the Tiber when a bridge of boats collapses. In Constantine's mind he has won this crucial engagement in alliance with the god of the Christians. The results are dramatic.

Formally acknowledged by the senate as the Augustus of the west, Constantine immediately takes steps to favour the persecuted Christians. He restores confiscated church property and offers public funds to churches in need. In AD 313 he arranges a meeting in Milan with Licinius, one of two claimants to the Title of augustus in the east. He persuades him to follow the same policy.

Later in that year Licinius defeats his rival in the east. He too now proclaims a policy of religious toleration, offering compensation to the Christians for the wrongs done to them.

Within a year or two of suffering severe persecution, the Christians suddenly find themselves a favoured group within the empire. They win tax concessions, and Roman basilicas are constructed for their use as churches. There are career advantages within Constantine's administration if one is a professing Christian. Conversions follow.

But Licinius is less fully committed to the cause. In 320 he reverts to a mild persecution, dismissing Christians from the army and the civil service. Constantine marches against him, in 324, and again the Christian banner is victorious. Licinius surrenders after a defeat near Byzantium. A year later he is executed on a charge of attempted rebellion.

A new Rome: AD 330

Constantine, now in firm command of the entire Roman empire (the first man for a long while to be in that position), is planning another initiative as significant as his adoption of Christianity. Immediately after the defeat of Licinius he sets about rebuilding Byzantium as a Christian capital city - one in which pagan sacrifice, the central rite of imperial Rome until this time, is specifically forbidden.

The city is ready by AD 330 for a ceremony of inauguration. Byzantium acquires two new names - New Rome and Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The Roman empire, within eighteen years of Constantine's first victory, has a new religion, a new centre of gravity and a significant change of culture.

Greece has always been the main cultural influence on Rome, and Greek is the language of the inhabitants of Byzantium. With the founding of Constantinople, the older culture effectively absorbs its vigorous younger challenger. Even the name Constantinopolis is Greek (polis meaning city).

Yet Constantinople is also the new Rome, capital of the Roman empire. The Greeks of this city will long continue to describe themselves as Romans. For several centuries Constantinople represents both the end of the Roman empire and the beginning of the Byzantine empire. Meanwhile Rome gradually establishes a new identity - as the seat of the Christian pope.

Byzantium offers the Roman emperor a clear strategic advantage as a centre of operation, for it is much closer than Rome to the threatened regions of the empire.

The main problems in the past century have been defending the Balkans from invaders beyond the Danube and protecting the Middle East from the Persians. Byzantium, renewed now as Constantinople, sits firmly between these troubled regions.

Three sons of Constantine: AD 337-361

On the death of Constantine, in AD 337, the empire is divided between his sons Constantine II, Constantius II and Constans. Since the time of his father, Constantius, the family has had a streak of constancy in its choice of names.

The sons inherit the parts of the empire which they have already ruled, on behalf of their father, as Caesars. Constantius II, though not the eldest, has the lion's share - Greece, Constantinople and the entire eastern empire. His elder brother, Constantine II, has Spain, Gaul and Britain. The youngest, Constans, controls Italy and Spain.

Peace and wisdom, in honour of which churches are now rising in Constantinople, do not make the brothers any more loving than other imperial families. Large numbers of their male relations are butchered at the start of the reign, and Constantine II meets his death in Italy in 340 when marching against Constans. Ten years later Constans is murdered in Gaul by an army commander with an eye on the throne. From AD 350 Constantius II is the only legitimate emperor.

With difficulty he recovers control of the entire empire. But from the point of view of Christianity, on which he is as keen as his father, he makes one cardinal error. He gives command of the west to his cousin Julian.

Julian the Apostate: AD 337-361

Son of a half-brother of Constantine the Great, Julian escapes the massacre of male members of the family which follows Constantine's death - probably because he is only six at the time. In his early 20s he studies in Athens, which still retains its status as the centre of Greek learning and pagan philosophy. Brought up strictly as a Christian, Julian now becomes a devotee of Greek culture. He is himself a talented writer in Greek, and several of his works survive.

Little of this would be remembered today, but for the unexpected accident of his becoming emperor. Subsequent events, in the two brief years of the 'apostate' on the throne, have mesmerized Christian historians.

In AD 356, when Julian is twenty-five, the emperor Constantius II appoints him Caesar in command of the Roman armies in Gaul. To everyone's surprise the young intellectual proves a brilliant general, winning a succession of victories over powerful tribes along the Rhine border.

In 359, needing reinforcements against Persia, Constantius orders many of Julian's best legions to march east. Instead, the troops stationed near Paris mutiny and proclaim Julian emperor. He moves slowly eastwards with them to what would have been a rebellious confrontation. But in 361 Constantius, moving westwards to meet him, dies in Asia Minor. Julian is emperor.

The revival of the pagan cult: AD 361-363

It is not known exactly when the new emperor, Julian, decides to reinstate the Ancient gods of rome and Greece . At first he behaves with religious tolerance - returning to their sees, for example, Catholic bishops who have been exiled by Constantius, a committed follower of Arius. But by 362 Julian is making a prominent display of the ritual sacrifices which he carries out personally at revived pagan temples.

When Christians protest, he removes their relics from ancient shrines, imposes special taxes on Christian priests and gives preference to pagans in the civil service.

Julian is repeating, in reverse, the actions of his uncle Constantine in favouring Christianity. He intends to put in place a network of pagan priests and officials throughout the empire of the kind established by the Christians. This view of tomorrow does not appeal to yesterday's elite.

To what extent the young emperor might have achieved his aim is one of history's interesting speculations. In Christian eyes God gives a swift and decisive answer when Julian is killed, in 363, in a skirmish against the Persians. A rumour, first heard a century later, offers wry satisfaction. It is said that in his dying words the apostate cedes victory to Christ: Vicisti, Galilaee (Thou hast conquered, Galilean).

The frontiers of empire: AD 364-378

The death of Julian in warfare with Persia leads indirectly to a rare spell of peace on that frontier. The army selects as emperor a member of the royal household, by the name of Jovian, who extracts the Roman legions from a dangerous situation by making major concessions. Large tracts of territory in Mesopotamia and Armenia, long disputed, are abandoned to Persia.

Jovian dies of natural causes less than a year after becoming emperor. His concessions are regarded as shameful in Constantinople, but it is another forty years before war with Persia resumes.

On the other permanently threatened frontiers of empire, the Danube and the Rhine, the situation is very different. The pressure of barbarian tribes, themselves suddenly under threat from the Huns, is at last about to break down the barriers and flood the western empire.

The catastrophe begins when the emperor Valens is defeated and killed by the Visigoths at Adrianople in 378. His successor, Theodosius - an emperor subsequently accorded the title 'the Great' - solves the problem in the short term by settling the Visigoths as federates within the empire, or allies. But the intrusion of Goths, Vandals and Huns will over the next century disturb and finally destroy the Roman empire in the west.

Christian emperor and Christian bishop: AD 379-390

Theodosius becomes the eastern emperor in AD 379 and rapidly settles the religious splits within the empire by declaring pagan worship and Christian heresies (such as Arianism) to be illegal. A law of 380 orders all citizens to subscribe to the Catholic doctrines agreed under the chairmanship of Constantine the Great at the Council of Nicaea in 325.

A close link between church and state, with the state giving the lead, becomes a characteristic of the eastern or Byzantine empire. But Theodosius discovers, in a famous clash, that western bishops have authoritarian ideas of their own.

The cleric who sets a high standard for the western church in its relationship to the secular powers is Ambrose, bishop of Milan. In AD 390, when Theodosius is in Milan, there is a riot in Greece by supporters of a popular charioteer. A city governor is killed, and Theodosius sends orders for a brutal reprisal.

The charioteer's fans are invited into a circus for a special performance. Then the gates are locked. More than 5000 are slaughtered by troops in a massacre lasting three hours.

When news of the atrocity reaches Milan, Ambrose refuses to give communion to the emperor unless he does public penance for the crime. Theodosius at first stays away from church. But eventually he appears, bare-headed and wearing sackcloth in place of his sumptuous imperial robes. He repeats the performance on several occasions before Ambrose relents, finally giving his emperor the sacrament on Christmas Day.

In the threat of excommunication the western church discovers a powerful weapon for dealing with wayward rulers.

Rome and Constantinople: 4th - 5th century AD

The balance between Rome and Constantinople, and the potential for an upset, is becoming more clearly defined. Two imperial courts, east and west, have been a familiar part of the empire's history. In effect they are more like two army camps, permanently on the move. If they come too close to each other, the result has often been war.

With two rival cities, both interested in political and religious priority, the situation is more complex. In the mid-4th century, under Constantius II, the senate in Constantinople is given equal authority with that of Rome. A few years later, at the Council of Constantinople in 381, it is stated that the bishop of Constantinople is of equal status to the bishop of Rome.

On the religious front an uneasy truce is maintained for several centuries. The final schism between Rome and Constantinople, acknowledging the separate Roman Catholic and greek orthodox churches, becomes only gradually evident during the Middle Ages.

In the military sphere the pace is forced by events largely beyond the emperors' control. Theodosius rules the entire empire with considerable skill until 395, and his descendants remain at least nominally in control of both east and west until 455. But any measure of peace in the west has been bought by compromise with German tribes.

Independent barbarians: AD 475-476

It has become clear, during the 5th century, that the Romans are now powerless to keep the barbarian rulers in any subordinate role. The Visigoths control an area stretching from the Loire in the north to the Rhone in the east, extending south over the Pyrenees to include much of northern Spain. The ruler of such a territory no longer needs to be a federate ally of Rome. In 475 Euric, king of the Visigoths, declares his independence.

The Ostrogoths, subdued for many decades by the Huns, begin after the death of Attila to move south and west round the Black Sea. But it is lesser groups of barbarians who bring Rome her final indignity. In 476 there is the first German king of Italy.

Odoacer king of Italy: AD 476-493

German mercenaries by now form an important part of any Roman army, and Roman armies play a major role in the making and breaking of emperors. This is the case in a fairly normal putsch of AD 476, but it is followed by an unusual demand from the mercenaries. They want to settle in Italy. They suggest that a third of every landowner's estate should be made over to them.

The suggestion is not as unreasonable as it sounds. Roman soldiers have in the past been Rewarded with land, and barbarian tribes have been settled in provinces of the empire as Federates. But it is a shocking thought to Romans that this provincial system might apply to Italy itself. The mercenaries' demand is rejected.

There is an immediate mutiny. The tribesmen elect one of their number, Odoacer, as their king. He leads them to a rapid victory, but immediately makes it clear that his intention is not to destroy the western empire. He wants to be part of it. He sends ambassadors to the emperor Zeno in Constantinople, acknowledging the emperor's rule but asking to be allowed to govern Italy as king of his own people. Zeno reluctantly agrees, subject to certain points of protocol.

The senate in Rome accepts the fait accompli with better grace, for Odoacer proves an effective ruler within the traditional Roman system. He even finds land for his German tribesmen without causing undue upheaval.

The end of the Roman empire? AD 476

The acceptance of Odoacer as king of Italy in 476 causes this year to be seen as the end of the Roman empire. And in a real sense it is. Kings and popes, neither of them part of Roman imperial tradition, will henceforth wield power in the Italian peninsula.

But this is the perspective of hindsight. To historians Constantinople is by this time the capital of the young Byzantine empire. To Europeans in the 5th century it is still the centre of the very ancient Roman empire. In imperial terms there is nothing new about chaos and upheaval in the west, and Roman emperors in Constantinople will continue to take active steps to reassert their authority. In 488 this is done with the help of the Ostrogoths.
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