Decadence, Rome, and Romania

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Decadence, Rome, and Romania

Post  Gantor on Wed Aug 04, 2010 5:51 pm

Decadence, Rome and Romania, the Emperors Who Weren't, and Other Reflections on Roman History

What do you think of the state of Romania?
Does it stand as from the beginning,
or has it been diminished?
Doctrina Jacobi nuper baptizati, 634 AD, A.H.M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602 [The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986], p. 316
Everyone knows why the Roman Empire fell. It became "decadent," meaning weak and immoral. The Romans were so busy at their orgies (often with their siblings), throwing Christians to the lions, poisoning their spouses, parents, and children, and eating exotic parts of animals (like hummingbird tongues), in between visits to the vomitorium so they could eat more, that they didn't notice all the Germans gathering on the frontiers. Then the ruthless pagan Germans rode in, trampled under their horses' hooves the few poor debauched legionnaires who remained, still foolishly fighting on foot, sacked Rome, destroyed civilization, overthrew the last emperor in 476, and ushered in the Dark Ages, from which Europe only emerged with the Renaissance, a thousand years later, when gunpowder finally could defeat mounted warriors. As the columnist Joseph Sobran wrote recently: Christianity built a new civilization on the "ruins" of the old.
Although accepted by no real historians, this cartoonish image looms large in popular discourse, is lovingly promoted in the movies, like Federico Fellini's Satyricon (1970), is often assumed in political and moral debates -- where some practice (e.g. pornography) or policy (e.g. gay rights) is frequently said to represent the decadence that brought about the Fall of Rome -- and is inadvertently often reinforced by various kinds of serious scholarship. A very fine book by George C. Brauer, Jr., published in 1967, was called The Young Emperors: Rome, A.D. 193-244. It was about a period in which several emperors were in fact young men, usually coming to the throne because of some hereditary connections. Reissued in 1995, the very same book was retitled: The Decadent Emperors: Power and Depravity in Third-Century Rome. This is a sexier title; and, since the "young emperors" of the period did include a couple of the more vicious, alarming, and bizarre characters among Roman emperors, Caracalla and Elagabalus, one is not disappointed to read the book for evidence of Roman decadence. Similarly, another very fine book, by Thomas Sowell, Migrations and Cultures, A World View, published in 1996, states flatly in its section on Jewish history, "the last Roman emperor was overthrown in 476 A.D." [p. 238]. Reinforcing the idea that the German invaders were pagan hordes who only slowly came to Christianity, morality, and civilization, Sowell says: "After the Visigoths began to abandon paganism for Christianity, beginning with the Visigothic King Reccared in 589, a new era began" [p. 244].

A little digging, however, and the whole idea of Roman "decadence" begins to look more than a little peculiar. The list of particularly cruel, dissolute, and outrageous emperors -- Caligula, Nero, Domitian, Commodus, Caracalla, and Elagabalus -- although impressive, comes to an end more than two hundred years (222-476) before the "Fall" of the Empire -- and the recent two hour History Channel special, "Roman Vice," didn't even manage to make it past Nero (implying that the whole history of the Empire was just more of same). But if Rome fell because Elagabalus wanted to marry a gladiator, then the effect was delayed, extraordinarily, by longer than it took the United States to get from George Washington to Bill Clinton. What happened during that period?
Well, with the Germans, indeed, on the frontiers (along with the Persians, Alans, etc.), the emperors up until 395 were mostly soldiers. They were a pretty grim lot, usually engaged in pretty grim business. Diocletian (284-305) doesn't seem to have spent much time in the vomitorium -- though, as the only emperor ever to actually retire from office, he did build a nice retirement village at Split (Spalatum) in Dalmatia (now Croatia). He said he would rather grow vegetables than try to regain the throne. Not our idea of the typical Roman emperor. More like Candide. Ethnically, Diocletian is supposed, like several of his colleagues, to have been an Illyrian, a people whose modern descedants might be the Albanians. Be that as it may, he is the first emperor (after, well, Philip the Arab) with a certifiably Greek name: Dioclês. This is a name similar in form to Heracles (Hêras kléos, the "fame/glory of Hera"), with the stem for "Zeus" substituted for the stem for "Hera" (Diós kléos, the "fame/glory of Zeus"). This was Latinized to Diocletianus when Dioclês became Emperor. Diocletian also managed to go his entire reign with only one brief, ceremonial visit to Rome. The possession of the City, or residence there, was no longer of much political significance. Nobody had to "march on Rome," as Septimius Severus did, to become Emperor.
Shortly after Diocletian, the emperor Constantine converted to Christianity, and all the charming archaic features of paganism, naked athletes at the Olympics, priestesses of Apollo in trances, ithyphallic Hermae on street corners, priests of Astarte cutting off their genitals, orgiastic Dionysiacs, etc., began to disappear.
The empire of 476 was therefore, except for philosophers and yokels (paganus, "pagan," means "rural"), in an official Christian hammerlock. Steady political and legal pressure would eventually eradicate the old religions and gods. The Roman army, which had previously been strongly Mithraic, showed its sympathies by electing the Christian Jovian on the death of the pagan Julian in 363, and then the Christian Valentinian I, who would remove the Altar of Victory from the Senate in Rome, in 364. Indeed, at the time, the accusation was that Christianity itself was the cause of the empire's problems. What did they expect when they scorned Victory herself? St. Augustine of Hippo answered this charge in the City of God by denying that it even mattered -- only the City of God was eternal -- even as the Vandals took Hippo in the year of his own death. The charge was later taken up by Edward Gibbon, who saw religious superstition as more enervating than the antics of any Caligula or Elagabalus. Such a charge was still being repeated by James G. Frazer in his classic The Golden Bough [1890, 1900, 1906-15, note].
The picture of ferocious pagan hordes overcoming, not intoxicated catamites, but ascetic and otherworldly Christians is a little different from the standard one, but perhaps it would do....if not for another little problem: The Goths, who defeated and killed the emperor Valens at Adrianople in 378, and who later established kingdoms in Spain (the Visigoths, 416-711) and Italy (the Ostrogoths, 493-553), were themselves literate Christians, converted by St. Wulfila (or Ulfilas, c.311-c.383, "Little Wolf"), who also designed the alphabet to write Gothic (which thus became the first written Germanic language) [note]. The Visigoths entered the Empire by permission as refugees from the Huns and only went to war because of their mistreatment: They had been reduced by the Romans to selling themselves into slavery for the sake of meals of rat meat -- at a rate of one rat for one slave. This now makes one wonder whom to call the barbarians.
The Visigothic king Reccared in 589 was not converting from paganism to Christianity, but from the heterodox Arian form of Christianity, advocated by Wulfila himself, to orthodox Catholicism. That made the Pope very happy, but it did not exactly effect a sea change in Visigothic religious practice. Similarly, the other German tribes who did the most damage to the Empire, the Vandals and Lombards, had also been Christians for some time. The only major German tribe that wasn't Christian was the Franks, and they never even got near Rome, much less sacked it. The Franks mostly stepped in after Roman authority had already collapsed in Gaul; but the conversion of the Frankish king Clovis (481-511) to Catholicism does make it sound like German tribes catching up with civilization. Not quite. The Ostrogothic king Theodoric (493-526) oversaw as much civilization in Italy as it had had in a while. Great literature was produced by Cassiodorus (c.490-c.583) and Boethius (476-524). Theodoric's tomb at Ravenna later became the model for a chapel built by Charlemagne at Aachen -- and an equestrian statue of Theodoric was actually removed to Aachen by Charlemagne. Italy certainly suffered more from the Roman reconquest (536-552) than from the Germanic occupation. Like Diocletian, Theodoric only bothered to visit the City of Rome once, on the 30th anniversary of his rule.
Another problem is with the "Fall" itself. No German chieftain sacked Rome or killed an emperor in 476. Instead, an officer in the army, Odoacer, who did happen to be German, deposed the commander of the army (the Magister Militum, "Master of Soliders"), Orestes. Since the titular emperor was Orestes's young son, known as "Augustulus," the "little Augustus," Odoacer sent him packing to a monastery. These events, also, took place, not in Rome, but in Ravenna, which had been the capital for most of the century. In the normal course of things, Odoacer would have set up his own titular emperor and then seen about getting recognition from the eastern emperor in Constantinople. That would be difficult, since the eastern emperor already recognized someone else as western emperor: Julius Nepos, who had been overthrown by Orestes in 475 but who was still holding out in Dalmatia (in Diocletian's own retirement palace, which made a very nice fortified town all through the Middle Ages).
As it happened, Odoacer decided not to bother with a titular western emperor. He sent the imperial regalia back to Constantinople and informed the emperor that he would be content with his Roman military title and recognition as a German king. The emperor agreed, and before long Odoacer took care of Julius Nepos as well (480). Thus Rome (or Ravenna) "fell" in 476 (or 480) less with a bang than with a whimper, and without noticeable institutional change or unaccustomed violence -- the fall of Constantinople in 1453 would be a far different matter. [note].
Rome and Romania
But wait a minute! "Eastern emperor"! "Constantinople"! What was that all about? Indeed, if word that "the last Roman emperor was overthrown in 476 A.D." got back to the people of that year, it would have come as a very great surprise to all, and especially to the emperor Zeno in Constantinople. Not only was he a Latin speaking Roman emperor, but after Odoacer's coup in 476, he was the Roman emperor, with the regalia of the West duly returned to him. And on his throne emperors continued to sit for the next thousand years, reckoning their direct succession from Augustus Caesar.
How this happened of course goes back to Diocletian and Constantine again. Diocletian realized that it was so much trouble for an emperor to rush from the Rhine to the Danube to the Euphrates that he decided to appoint some colleagues to share his authority. First there was a co-emperor, Maximian, then two junior colleagues, Constantius Chlorus and Galerius. The senior emperors were the Augusti, and the junior emperors and heirs apparent were Caesars. Diocletian then took for himself the business of the eastern half of the empire, with Galerius to help, and left the west to Maximian, with Constantius to help. The system is called the "Tetrarchy," the "Rule of Four." Diocletian also established a precedent by retiring in 305, after twenty years of rule (perhaps with the urging of Galerius). He also prevailed upon Maximian to do the same, with Galerius and Constantius becoming Augusti, appointing two new Caesars, Severus and Maximinus Daia. This was the closest Rome ever got to a constitutional, non-hereditary system of rule. It didn't end up working very well, but it was, with marriage alliances, still close to the system of Imperial adoption used by the Antonines.
Trouble arrived soon enough. Constantius Chlorus died unexpectedly at York (like Septimius Severus) in 306. His troops, enthusiastic about him and his family, immediately elevated his son Constantine to his position. This was irregular, but Galerius consented in ill grace as long as Constantine agreed to the status of Caesar rather than Augustus. Constantine agreed, and the Caesar Severus was recognized as the new western Augustus. Unfortunately, Severus had a problem. Since Constantius had now been succeeded by his son, Maximian's own son Maxentius didn't want to be left out. He seized Italy and even persuaded his father to come out of retirement. When Severus tried to establish himself in Italy, he was killed in battle.

This left everything pretty much a shambles, but we need not worry too much about that. Constantine eventually defeated and killed Maxentius (in 312), an event around which the fateful story of his vision of the Cross (or something) grew up, and in the end he assumed sole rule of the Empire by defeating Galerius's successor Licinius (who had been appointed in 308) in 324.
But this was now a new empire. Not only did Constantine begin to institute Christianity, but the city of Rome itself had along the way assumed a very secondary importance in the life of the state. As we have seen, Diocletian seems to have visited the city only once. Rome had become Romania: a great Empire with a City, rather than a great City with a Empire. As Peter Heather puts it [The Fall of the Roman Empire, Oxford, 2006], Rome was now an "inside-out" Empire -- the center and the periphery had exchanged places (as illustrated in the animation at right). This transformation is scrupulously ignored in popular treatments of the Roman Empire, even in apparently well researched presentations on venues like the History Channel. They treat the fate of the Empire as tied to the fate of the City, when their stories had long been separated and the City had ceased to be the center of events, politically, culturally, or militarily. All free Roman subjects had been citizens since Caracalla. The emperors who restored the empire in the Third Century, Claudius II, Aurelian, and Diocletian, had all come from Illyricum. There was little time for the emperors to spend at Rome; and for military reasons, Milan (Mediolanum) and later Ravenna became the practical western capitals, as Diocletian had taken up residence at Nicomedia (the modern Turkish Izmit, badly damaged by an earthquake in 1999) in Bithynia. The Roman citizens of the city of Rome were now distinct in no truly important way from the rest of the empire, though they still continued to receive subsidized food shipments and formal respects. "Roman" now meant the Empire and the citizens, and only secondarily the City [note].
Thus, Christianity did not build a new civilization on the ruins of the old, it was the old civilization (the ruins came later), transformed by a religion that had grown up out of its own internal elements: the uncompromising Monotheism, exclusivity, historical drama, and destiny of Judaism, the divine King so dear to the Egyptians, the Hellenistic mystery religion's promise of immortality through initiation, the elaborate doctrine and argumentation of Greek metaphysics, and finally the unity and universality that Aurelian and Diocletian had already tried to institute through a cult of Sôl Invictus, the "Unconquered Sun." The birthday of Christ was even conveniently moved to the birthday of the solar Mithras: December 25th (it's still on January 6th in Armenian chuches); and it is noteworthy how the push for the divinity of Christ consistently came from the Egyptians -- Athanasius of Alexandria had to contend with the Arian sympathies of several emperors. Orthodoxy did not firmly settle on Athanasianism until Theodosius I. But then the Egyptians continued pushing: The orthdoxy of both divine and human natures for Christ was not good enough; the Egyptians didn't like the idea of two natures. The most extreme version was that the one nature was entirely divine. Condemned at Chalcedon, the Monophysite ("One Nature") doctrine remains the view of Egyptian Christians, the Copts, to this day (though most now regard the one nature as both human and divine).

Christianity thus brewed itself up over a couple of centuries as the first multicultural religion, a peculiarly Roman, which is to say a Latinized, Hellenistic, Middle Eastern religion. Indeed, the official name of the "Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church" doesn't even give much of a hint that it refers to Christianity, though you know for sure it has something to do with Rome. The match of religion with times is evident enough in the circumstance that only one emperor subsequent to Constantine, Julian the Apostate, briefly and tragicomically tried to return to the old gods.
Constantine then built his New Rome (Roma Nova), better situated militarily than the old, a Christian Rome, decorated with the spoils of the dying paganism (including great bronze horses from Delphi, later relocated to Venice, and the Wonder of the World Statue of Zeus from Olympia, whose face evidently inspired portraits of Christ), but also with its own Senate, its own Consuls, its own chariot races (in the hippodrome), its own factional riots (between the Greens and the Blues), and its own grain subsidies, drawn from Egypt and North Africa like those of Rome itself. The site was a natural wonder and a military engineer's dream, perhaps more beautifully situated, on hills flanked by water, than any great modern city save San Francisco or Hong Kong. This became Constantinopolis, the City of Constantine, later shortened in Greek to Stamboul, and now remembered in Turkish as Istanbul [note]. Its great triple land wall, with almost two hundred towers, finished under Theodosius II (408-450), was perhaps the greatest fortification in world history, standing unbreached, through countless sieges, against Germans, Huns, Avars, Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, Vikings, Cumans, Crusaders, Mongols, and Turks, for more than a thousand years, protected by the Blessed Virgin of the miraculous Spring of Blachernae, finally to shatter only under the cannonballs of the Sultân II. Even so, in the midst of Istanbul, it mostly still remains standing, its breaches merely allowing modern streets to pass [note].

"Oh!" you say, "You mean Byzantium! That's not the Roman Empire! That's some horrible medieval thing!" That certainly would have been news to Constantine, or to Zeno, or to Justinian (527-565), or even to Basil II in the 11th century (963-1025). "Byzantium," although the name of the original Greek city where Constantinople was founded, and often used for the City (as by Procopius), was not a word that was ever used to refer to the Empire, or to anything about it, by its rulers, its inhabitants, or even its enemies. The emperor was always of the "Romans," Rhômaioi in Greek; and to Arabs and Turks the Empire and land were simply Rûm, "Rome" [note]. As Roman identity expanded from Old Rome into all Romania, it focused and contracted from the shrinking Empire onto the New Rome. "Byzantium" is in fact a term of ill will and scorn adopted and substituted by modern historians, who didn't want to admit that Rome did not, after all, "fall," leaving them personally as the eventual and proper heirs. As G.W. Bowersock, Peter Brown, and Oleg Grabar say, the term "Byzantine Empire" is "a modern misnomer redolent of ill-informed contempt" (Late Antiquity, A Guide to the Postclassical World, Belknap Press, Harvard University Press, 1999, p.vii). When Liutprand of Cremona (c.922-972) and Frankish enjoys, in an embassy from Otto I, with their own pretentions as successors of Rome, arrived at the Court of Nicephorus Phocas in 968, they bore a letter addressed to the "emperor of the Greeks." For this "sinful audacity," they were thrown in prison [Jonathan Harris, Constantinople, Continuum, 2007, p.62]. Evidently even they had not heard of "Byzantium" as the name of the Empire [note].
While "Byzantium" is indeed used merely as a term of convience and custom by most historians, there is the awkward question of when "Rome" ends and "Byzantium" begins. If Rome "fell" in 476, then clearly "Byzantium" should begin there; but this boundary is rarely used. Since Constantinople itself must be explained, Byzantine histories commonly begin with Constantine, often in 324, when Constantine had defeated Lincinius and acquired the East. This is what one finds in A.A. Vasiliev, History of the Byzantine Empire [University of Wisconsin Press, 1961], George Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State [Rutgers University Press, 1969], and John Julius Norwich, Byzantium, The Early Centuries [Knopf, 1989]. On the other hand, David R. Sear's Byzantine Coins and Their Values [Seaby, 1987] is the direct continuation of his Roman Coins and Their Values [Seaby, 1988], and he chooses to make the division at the reign of the Emperor Anastasius just because Anastasius carried out a major reform of the copper coinage. Others take Phocas or Heraclius, under whom the Danube Frontier collapsed and the Arab invasion occurred, as the first "Byzantine" emperors: A.H.M. Jones' monumental and authoritative The Later Roman Empire 284-602 [Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986] and Mark Whittow's complementary The Making of Byzantium, 600-1015 [University of California Press, 1996] take that approach. We also see this division in Andreas Thiele's Erzählende genealogische Stammtafeln zur europäischen Geschichte, where "Rom" covers genealogies from Julius Caesar to Phocas (Volume II, Part 2, Europäiche Kaiser-, Königs- und Fürstenhäuser II Nord-, Ost- und Südeuropa, R. G. Fischer Verlag, Part 2, Second Edition, 1997, pp.262-292), while "Byzanz" goes from Heraclius to the Emperors of Trapezond (Volume III, Europäiche Kaiser-, Königs- und Fürstenhäuser, Ergänzungsband, R. G. Fischer Verlag, Second Edition, 2001, pp.213-236). The most recent thorough history, however, Warren Treadgold's A History of the Byzantine State and Society [Stanford University Press, 1997], begins where many of the explanations must begin, with Diocletian himself in 284 -- elsewhere [Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081, Stanford, 1995, p.viii], Treadgold lists possible dates for the beginning of Byzantium as, besides 284, "324, 395, 476, 565, 610, or 717." Whatever point one picks between Diocletian and Heraclius (or Leo III, Treadgold's "717" date), there is clearly a transition period, but all the later empire could still be distinguished from the earlier simply by calling it what its inhabitants did: "Romania." "Byzantine," for whatever reason it is used, still carries a connotation of the mediaeval, dark, nasty, labyrinthine, and treacherous -- the disapproval of even modern and secular Western Europeans for what Mediaeval Latins would dismiss as the Greek "Schismatics." Curious how the attitude stays the same despite the changes in culture, faith, politics, etc. [note]. A final date for the transition could be 750, which is used by Peter Brown and others to terminate "Late Antiquity." This could date the fall of the Omayyads, or the final fall of Ravenna to the Lombards (in 751). Both these events are significant, but they seem like variations on developments already far progressed.
So why should modern historians have ever scorned the successors of Augustus in Constantinople? Well, it isn't just them. The scorn goes back a little earlier. Nothing after Alexander Severus (222-235) is quite Roman enough for many scholars. The Cassell's New Latin Dictionary, of which I have the 1959 edition [Funk & Wagnalls, New York], only gives the vocabulary of classical authors from "about 200 B.C. to A.D. 100." Thus a number of late meanings, for words like comes or dux, or late vocabulary altogether, like diocesis (diocese, Greek dioíkêsis), Diocletian's new administrative groupings of provinces, are missing. This leaves one without the connections to the mediaeval and modern meanings of "count," "duke," or "diocese." Obviously the Latin literature or history after 100 A.D. was not worth considering -- a slight certain to be a disappointment to the great historian of the fourth century, Ammianus Marcellinus, and his friends, or to Theodosius II and Justinian who took the trouble in the fifth and sixth centuries to gather Roman law together into law codes, or to Justinian's contemporary Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, d.524), whose commentaries on Porphyry's Isagoge (the "Introduction") and Aristotle's On Interpretation, and his On the Consolation of Philosophy, were among the few clues to Greek philosophy preserved in Western Europe until the return of Greek literature beginning in the 12th century. Although Boethius lived under King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, he was Roman Consul for the year 510, and his sons Consuls for 522.
This truncation of Classical Latin literature is also evident in the classic Latin textbook, which I bought in 1967, Frederic M. Wheelock's Latin [Barnes & Noble, 1956, 1966; revised as Wheelock's Latin by Richard A. LaFleur, HarperResource, 2000]. The periods of Latin literature include divisions of the Golden Age, 80 BC-14 AD (with Ciceronian, to 43 BC, and Augustan, from 43, subdivisions), the Silver Age, 14 AD-138 BC (to the death of Hadrian), with an "Archaising Period" coda (to "fill out the 2nd century"), and then the "Patristic Period" all the way to the "Medieval Period," with a conventional cutoff, apparently, around 476, and a great deal of talk about the "Vulgar Latin" used by the Church Fathers [Wheelock, pp.xxv-xxix, LaFleur, pp.xxxiii-xxxvii]. The "Patristic Period" leaves one with the impression that there was no secular Latin literature of the era, and in fact none of the Sententiae Antîquae in Wheelock draw on Ammianus or Boethius, though we do get Isidore of Seville (d.636) and the Venerable Bede (d.735) without any cautions that these are Mediaeval and "vulgarized" texts (Boethius and even Bede, but not Isidore, are represented in the Loeb Classical Library). Secular Late Antiquity thus gets ignored and bypassed -- perhaps from a disinclination to admit that it even existed.
Similarly, the Oxford History of the Classical World, Volume II, The Roman World (Oxford University Press, 1988), which is 422 large format pages long, devotes a miserable 22 pages to the last two hundred years before 476. The chapter is called "Envoi: On Taking Leave of Antiquity." Evidently, the editors couldn't take leave fast enough. Such impatience can also be seen in the large format and lavishly illustrated Chronicle of the Roman Emperors by Chris Scarre (Thames and Hudson, 1995, 1999; 232 pages of text). From Augustus to 235 AD, 52% of the time from Augustus to the "Fall" in 476, is covered by 65% of the text. The crisis of the Third Century, from 235 to 284, and the remaining time, from Diocletian until 476, each receive about 17% of the text, although in time they are (only) 10% and 38%, respectively. Thus, 192 years of Roman history, including a century (the 4th) with extensive ruins and literature, are given less than half the space that one might expect. Closer inspection reveals something else. Not a single pre-476 monument of Constantinople is shown, not the pillars of Claudius II or Constantine, nor the Walls of Theodosius II (though they are at least mentioned). In fact, after the Arch of Constantine and a part of one of his churches in Rome, there is not a single monument or building illustrated in the text, not even anything from Ravenna, the capital of the last Western Emperors. No wonder things could be wrapped up so quickly. One is left with the false impression, merely scanning the pages, that nothing was built, an impression as false and misleading (though consistent with expectations for decadence or the Dark Ages) as the title of the last chapter, "The Last Emperors," which disposes of everyone after Constantine (139 years -- George Washington to Herbert Hoover) in just ten pages. In The Penguin Historical Atlas of Ancient Rome, also by Chris Scarre [1995], 75 pages are devoted to the Roman Empire. Of this, 21 pages, 28% of the total, cover everything from Diocletian on. This is better than the Oxford History or the Chronicle, but it still represents 38% of the time.
What's the problem? Well, the first two hundred years of Roman history do make a pretty compact cultural and historical unit. The culture and religion are still pagan, the office of emperor maintains some pretense of republican form, Roman power is more or less triumphant and unchallenged, and there are those wonderfully entertaining "decadent" emperors, upon whom every indulgence and sexual excess can be projected (which may actually be what the Roman historians were doing themselves). That takes us from Augustus to Alexander Severus (30 BC to 235 AD). Then we have a world of trouble. Palmyra takes the East. Gaul and Spain break away. The Goths sack Athens. Pirates rake the seas. The Empire seems to be disintegrating. Soon philosophy turns from the grim determination of Stoicism to the otherworldly consolations of mysticism, whether in the pagan Neoplatonism of Plotinus or the new religions like Christianity, Mithraism, or Manicheanism. The emperors, who could no longer survive spending their time on debaucheries in Rome, were not, at first, very mystical; but the Zeitgeist caught up with them in Constantine's Christianity. This is all often too much for the Classicists, whose bias then distorts their estimation even of the facts of Late Antiquity. If inattention to the 3rd century onwards was due to a lack of events, a lack of literature, or a lack of ruins and archaeology, it might make some sense. But none of those things are lacking. It is the interest that is lacking: the 3rd century on is just not the "real" Rome anymore. Classicists are all versions of Livy, whose historiography was driven by moral judgments that Rome was just not what it used to be (see what he says about Cincinnatus). Fortunately, there has been a reaction against this for a while now. Peter Brown's great The World of Late Antiquity 150-750 [HBJ, 1971] zeros in on many myths and misconceptions about the late empire and has inspired great interest and more critical appraisals of the period. Despite the date in the title, Brown essentially begins with the transformations of the 3rd century. This is, in essence, when Rome became Romania. But to those for whom "Rome" merely means the City, not the Empire, that is the problem. The transformation and universalization of the state means a loss of interest, despite complete continuity, even in language (for a while).
The new era for Romania begins neatly enough. The Era of Diocletian, beginning in 284, continued to be used in Egypt long after his death. Indeed, the Era of Diocletian is still used in Egypt by the Egyptian Christians, the Copts, in conjunction with the months of the ancient Egyptian calendar (Thout, etc.) and the leap day that Augustus Caesar imposed on the city of Alexandria in 26 BC. Thus, September 11, 1996, was the first day of the Year 1713 for the Copts. The Anno Domini Era itself was "inspired," if that is the right word, by the Era of Diocletian. In the Sixth Century, Dionysius Exiguus, who was making up the Easter tables for the Julian calendar with Alexandrian astronomical data, was offended that Christians should be using the era of a persecutor of Christians. He thought that Christians should be using an era based on the life of Christ. He didn't get it quite right (Jesus cannot have been born after 4 BC), but his system eventually became universal in Christendom and then simply universal -- now often called the "Common Era." The Copts, of course, had no intention of paying tribute to Diocletian. They call theirs the "Era of Martyrs," in homage to the martyrs, not to the person, of Diocletian.
The Era of Diocletian does suggest the unit of a later, or perhaps second, Empire. Its natural end is not 476, but 610, as in Jones and Whittow. The natural period ends, not with the German kingdoms in Italy, Spain, North Africa, and Gaul, two of which were actually restored to Rome by Justinian, but with the collapse of the Danube frontier and the advent of Islâm. The emperor Heraclius (610-641), who had to deal with those appalling events, ushers in profound changes in the Empire. As the armies retreated from the shattered frontiers, they were settled in areas of Anatolia intended to support them in the absence of all the revenues from the lost provinces. This was the beginning of the "theme" military divisions, which eventually replaced the old Roman provinces. Also Greek rather than Latin began to be used for all official purposes. Heraclius himself, very symbolically, adopted the Greek title of "king," basileus, in honor of his crushing defeat of the Persian emperor, who had always been called the "Great King," megas basileus.
Further divisions are clear enough: from 610 to the end of the Macedonian Dynasty in 1059 we have a period, almost exactly covered by Whittow, of disaster, survival, recovery, and triumph. This great story gives us "Middle Romania," when a transformed empire found a new identity, achieved remarkable status and, at least against the Bulgars, exacted a terrible revenge. Finally, from 1059, when the late Macedonian Dynasty had already subverted, through debasement, favoritism, and neglect of the army, the pillars of Middle Romanian power, we have the decline, with periodic partial recoveries (the Comneni & early Palaeologi), all the way down to what John Julius Norwich calls the "almost unbearably tragic" end with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Whether "Late Byzantium" or "Late Romania," we have the story whereby the Cosmopolitan Empire of Nations, founded on conquest and history and refounded on religion, vanishes altogether. It is replaced, however, with an Islâmic Empire, that of the Turks, Rûm and Rumelia, that in some ways, mutatis mutandis, was not unlike Romania. That survived until the last Sult.ân was deposed in 1922, and Constantinople ceased being a capital, and a home for Emperors, for the first time since Constantine.
First Empire ROME ROMAN EMPIRE 27 BC-284 AD 310 years
Second Empire EARLY ROMANIA LATE ROMAN EMPIRE 284-610 Era of Diocletian 1-327 326 years
Third Empire MIDDLE ROMANIA EARLY BYZANTIUM 610-1059 Era of Diocletian 327-776 449 years
Fourth Empire LATE ROMANIA LATE BYZANTIUM 1059-1453 Era of Diocletian 776-1170 394 years
Fifth Empire TURKIYA ISLÂMIC BYZANTIUM 1453-1922 Era of Diocletian 1170-1639 469 years
With Heraclius the Roman Empire had returned to what in a sense had always been its true character: a Hellenistic Kingdom. When Constantine XI was killed by the Turks in 1453, it was, in many real ways, the end of the Hellenistic world. The meaning of this will be considered in turn; but first, it must be asked: "Well, OK, the Empire of Diocletian and Constantine has a natural transition to the collapse under the miserable emperor Phocas in 602-610, but can the collapse of the western Empire be so easily dismissed? Is 476 really so insigificant? Can the kingdoms of the Germans be so demoted? And why, after all, did the Western Empire collapse?

The Emperors Who Weren't
These are good questions, which brings us back to Odoacer, and his predecessors. The Roman Empire looked fine in 395, the year of the death of Theodosius the Great. The frontiers were secure, orthodoxy was established, the Visigoths were pacified, and Theodosius, doubtlessly with a mind at peace (he had even patched up a nasty excommunication by St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan [not Rome, notice]), left the Empire to his young sons, Honorius and Arcadius, under the protection of his trusted, and in fact trustworthy, commander, Stilicho. Stilicho was Odoacer's first precedessor: a German commander of the Roman army. This might sound odd, but it didn't seem so odd at the time. Germans had long been in the Roman army. Marcus Aurelius, who was Roman enough for any scholar, took a whole tribe of barbarians, the Iazygians (who had fought with Germans but were actually Iranian), into the Roman army. This had not created problems. And the army had always filled up with the most warlike inhabitants of the Empire. At the time, German refugees and interlopers were certainly the most warlike.

But with Stilicho, something was different. His young charges were weak and worthless; and worse, they had divided the Empire into east and west again, and the two courts were intriguing against each other, with Stilicho often caught in the middle. The Visigoths started acting up, and for obscure reasons Stilicho may have avoided, or lost, or been prevented from, having the chance to annihilate them. That, in retrospect, is what needed to be done. Germans in the army was one thing, but an independent, belligerent tribe in the midst of the Empire was something else. Theodosius had allowed, or been compelled to allow (he could not defeat the Goths), this to happen. The Visigoths, after their experience before Adrianople, were not going to be dispersed in settlement or in the army as Roman practice previously would have required. The individual Visigoths who were off in the Roman army at the time of Adrianople had been murdered. So now the tribe stuck together. Arther Ferrill, in The Fall of the Roman Empire, the Military Explanation [Thames and Hudson, London, 1986], identifies this as the fatal, catastrophic mistake in Roman policy. Germans in the Roman army became Romans. Germans in a German tribe remained German; and as the Roman army assimilated itself to the influence of the German model, it lost its advantage of discipline over its German enemies. It became a kind of German tribe itself.
Still, this need not have been fatal. Stilicho could have swept aside the intrigue, organized his resources, and annihilated the tribal Visigoths through one simple act: seizing the throne. He didn't, and eventually was murdered by Honorius (in 408). What happened next is revealing: the army seemed to disintegrate. The Visigoths swept into Italy and took Rome in 410, while Honorius sat safe in Ravenna. A Roman Army of Italy remained, but the Goths brought into the army by Stilicho were killed or expelled (many joined the Visigoths). This reduced the effectiveness of the force, perhaps also because of the loss of discipline, to the point that the Visigoths could not be met in battle with any chance of success. In seizing the throne, Stilicho would have lost legitimacy with the East, but by not seizing the throne, Stilicho and his successors passed on after them weak civilian governments, often with young emperors and scheming regents, at a time when the ferocity of third century warrior emperors was badly needed again. In 410, only fifteen years after the death of Theodosius, the western empire had become all but paralyzed, with the Goths in Rome itself, and Britain stripped of troups by the usurper Constantine, who moved into Gaul. The western emperors never recovered, as Britain itself was henceforth left to its own devices.
What may have been personal loyalty to the Throne in Stilicho obviously becomes something else later: the commander Ricimer, who presided over a critical era in the dissolution of the western Empire, 456-472, made two or three emperors himself, briefly accepted a candidate from the east (Anthemius, 467-472), and through the whole business did not do what now seems like the obvious: He did not get his own army to elevate him to the Purple. Like more than half a dozen commanders from Stilicho to Odoacer, Ricimer did not do what every legionary commander on the frontier back in the third century dreamed of doing: becoming emperor himself. These were "the emperors who weren't," the soldiers who passed up the time honored Roman custom of killing an emperor, cleaning out the intrigue, paying off the veterans, and then marching out to massacre the barbarians. Why in the world would they not have done that? It doesn't make any sense. A book about them from 1983 by John Michael O'Flynn, is called Generalissimos of the Western Roman Empire [U of Alberta Press], giving them the title used by Joseph Stalin and Chiang Kai-shek in World War II to show that they outranked everyone. Why would someone who outranked everyone be content to "serve" some weak, pathetic puppet emperor?
The answer is simple enough: They were Germans. They were not Roman citizens. They were resident aliens. They could have all kinds of Roman titles. They could aspire to be recognized as German kings federated with Rome, but they were simply not qualified to be emperors [note]. Just because Caracalla had made all Roman subjects into citizens did not mean that anyone who wandered in over the Rhine or Danube was automatically a citizen. They weren't. One commander, Gundobad, was already king of the Burgundians and simply returned to his tribe when Julius Nepos and Orestes deposed him (and his puppet emperor Glycerius) in 473. Nothing, indeed, is so revealing about the extraordinary symbiosis of Romania and Germania in the fifth century. The illiterate (who weren't illiterate) pagan (who weren't pagan) German hordes (who were actually in the Roman army) who trampled down the Roman legionnaires with their invincible cavalry (we'll get to that shortly) played by such Marquess of Queensberry Rules that it never occurred to them to claim a position that their citizenship didn't entitle them to! It was more than three centuries before a German, a Frank finally, dared to claim the imperial status for himself; and Charlemagne had the excuse of a woman, for the first time, on the throne in Constantinople (Irene, 780-802) and a Pope who was perfectly happy to inflate his own authority into that of emperor-maker.
So the western Empire crumbled, not because of decadence, not because of Christianity, not because of pagan hordes, but because of the scrupulous observance of the privileges of citizenship. That the Germans did not otherwise have any military advantage is also an important point. Cavalry may have decided the battle of Adrianople, but not because the Goths were all mounted, or because the Romans did not have much or much very good cavalry, or because cavalry had some kind of real military advantage over infantry. In most of military history, cavalry could decide battles only when infantry had become tired or disorganized and the cavalry managed to strike at a decisive moment. This happened at Adrianople. On their left flank, the Roman cavalry had actually defeated the Visigothic cavalry and driven it away. In the time honored manner, it began to sweep around to the rear of the Gothic army, to surround and destroy it. Unfortunately, it ran into the fortified Gothic camp, built with wagons into an effective defense against cavalry. This checked and damaged the Roman forces, just as German reinforcements arrived. The Roman cavalry was then defeated in turn, and the Goths were able to sweep around the Roman left. It was thus not really Gothic cavalry that won the battle, but, ironically, Gothic fortifications. When the Flemings and Swiss discovered in the 14th and 15th centuries that they could stop a charge of mounted and armored knights with nothing more sophisticated than pikes, it became obvious that all infantry had ever needed to win battles was discipline, determination, and some money. Gunpowder had little to do with the end of feudal knighthood. Rich cities and determined citizen soldiers had everything to do with it. Cavalry had dominated in the meantime, to any extent that it ever did, just because the money didn't exist to raise real armies and there was a premium on the mobility of the smaller, feudal forces, where the nobles could also supply their own horses.
The traditional story about German cavalry doesn't even make a lot of sense: As Ferrill points out, an effective cavalry requires not one but many horses per rider. Whittow mentions Marco Polo's observation that each Mongol warrior maintained as many as 18 remounts. And horses need to be fed. This is not easy to do without organized logistics, unless you are nomads living on natural grassland like the steppe. The Mongols could move an entire mounted army from China to Hungary, but beyond that they encounted difficulties. The German tribes were in no position to maintain such a large mounted establishment. The Romans were. The Romans had stud farms and all the grain and logistics to maintain their cavalry. They had been doing it for some time. What the Romans lost then was their discipline and organization, and this occurred through the Germanization of the army, even as the German commanders of the same were no more ready to seize the ultimate Roman honor for themselves than the Romans were to bestow it on them.
This dilemma did not go unobserved or entirely misunderstood at the time; and the emperor Leo I (457-474) had in fact taken steps to remedy it: He purged the eastern army of Germans and brought in the most warlike Roman citizens he could find, rebellious Isaurians from the mountains of Anatolia, to brace up the ranks. With them came the future emperor Zeno himself, who assumed a properly Greek name in place of his clearly un-Greek original one: Tarasikodissa. This was just what the doctor ordered for the eastern Empire. And when Zeno invited the Ostrogothic king Theodoric to get rid of Odoacer and rule Italy, the eastern empire stood free of a German presence for the first time in a century. Soon the tables would be turned.
Recently, Peter Heather, who also rejects arguments about Roman decadence, argues in his The Fall of the Roman Empire [Oxford, 2006] that the Roman system was simply overwhelmed by the numbers of the immigrating tribes, that the Roman Army, although large enough on paper, could only bring to bear forces that were actually outnumbered by the Goths, Vandals, Suevi, etc., and that the occupation of Roman lands in Gaul, Spain, and North Africa damaged the Roman tax base enough that the Army could not recover. In his view Constantius and Aëtius went a long way to restoring the integrity of the Western Empire. Constantius defeated the usurper Constantine, recovered Gaul for the Emperor, and then got the Visigoths to help him destroy most of the Alans and Vandals in Spain -- unfortunately leaving the Suevi and Asding Vandals to do more damage. Nevertheless, this was progess, and Constantius was even made co-Emperor for it, marrying Honorius's sister and fathering Valentinian III. Unfortunately, Constantius then died, and before a strong hand could be restored, the Vandals crossed over into Africa. This was all some very bad luck, but not all was lost. When Aëtius gained control, it looked again like there was someone to handle things. The Vandals were stopped, and when they did move again and took Carthage, a joint East-West expedition was organized against them in 441. As Heather asserts, and the Romans agreed, it was essential that North Africa be regained, for its tax base, its food supply, and, I might add, to recover control of the Sea from the Vandals. Unfortunately, the expedition was cancelled because Attila became aggressive and all forces were needed against him. Previously, Aëtius had been able to call on the Huns for support. While the defeat of the Huns was followed by Aëtius's murder and a period of confusion, Ricimer accepted the Eastern candidate, Anthemius, as Western Emperor, as part of a plan for another joint expedition in 468 against the Vandals. With 1000 ships, this should have worked, but the Romans did not exactly have a lot of experience in amphibious operations, and the Vandals fleet was able to break up the landing. The treasury of Leo I had been exhausted by the effort, and as Heather puts it, this was the fatal moment when Western recovery became impossible. The Western Empire collapsed in a shambles, leaving only Italy to central control.
How far does Peter Heather's perspective go in explaining events? A good way, but there are still anomalies. His book begins with striking examples of Roman Legions fighting effectively against overwhelming barbarian forces. We never learn why purely Roman forces should have been so relatively ineffective in the Fifth Century. Little good was accomplished without barbarian help. Stilicho relied on Gothic recruits, Constantius on the Visigoths themselves, and Aëtius on the Huns. Arther Ferrill's argument provides an explanation. Roman discipline was compromised by too many unassimilated barbarian recruits. Where purely Roman forces were involved, with a good chance of success, in the expedition of 468, a combination of bad luck and bad strategy doomed it. How well it could have succeeded can be seen in Belisarius's landing of 533, with half as many ships, which was dramatically successful. If the expedition of 468 had gone as well, there is no telling what the consequences might have been. But by 533 it was really too late to revive the Western Empire the way it had been. Roman forces in the traditional form, in the West, had ceased to exist.
Which perhaps raises another question. When Hannibal wiped out whole Roman armies, Rome simply raised new ones. There doesn't seem to have been a problem with the tax base. Perhaps the loss of Roman strength in the 5th century was not entirely an artifact of barbarization. The paid, professional Army of the Late Empire was no longer a citizen army, and it could not simply be expanded rapidly with drafts of civilians. So I detect a number of problems in the Fall of the West: (1) divided authority, without soldier Emperors, where a successful commander, like Aëtius, could be murdered out of envy, or German commanders were ineligible for the Throne; (2) loss of discipline as German recruits overwhelmed the traditional Roman model of discipline and organization; and (3) the inability of the Roman State to effectively draw on its manpower. The previous impression, that the Late Empire had declined in population and prosperity is something that Peter Heather effectively argues against. That leaves an institutional problem. The citizens of Romania were not expected, one and all, to become soldiers, the way those of Rome were in the 3rd Century BC. This was a problem effected simply by centuries of general peace, in which a merely professional army was sufficient. The paradigm of the mounted knight, derived from the small forces used by barbarian nobility, would, significantly, be overthrown by citizen armies, those of Flanders, as at the Battle of the Golden Spurs against France in 1302, and those of the Swiss, as at the Battle of Sempach against the Hapsburgs in 1368, or especially at the Battle of Nancy against the Duke of Burgundy in 1477. A similar phenomenon could be seen when the professional armies of the 18th century were swept away by the mass citizen drafts of the French Revolution. The Roman Republic benefited from a comparable mechanism, but the Empire, largely because of its very success, had lost that advantage.


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