The Emperor who both saved and destroyed the Roman empire
The major change came at the end of the 3rd and the beginning of the 4th centuries with the two great emperors – Diocletian (284 – 305) and Constantine the Great (306 – 337). There are two ways of looking at them. It could be said that they were the two emperors who restored the Roman Empire, who realised that the chaos of the later 3rd century meant that drastic reorganisation was needed, and carried out this drastic reorganisation so successfully that Rome continued to thrive throughout the 4th century. In many ways the 4th century was more successful than the 3rd, and indeed it carried on beyond that, for Constantinople limped on for many centuries, while the idea of Rome had a lingering echo in the West with the establishment of the Catholic church, so that today the Pope could almost be said to be the descendant of the ideas of Diocletian and Constantine.
On the other hand, using my terminology, it could be said that the reforms of Diocletian and Constantine mark the crucial change when the civilisation of Rome collapsed into barbarism and that many of the features that made Rome so uniquely attractive were replaced by features more at home in the great barbarian empires of the east. The reason that Constantinople survived so long was because it had the rigid and dictatorial framework that had given strength to ancient Egypt and to the Bronze Age states of the Near East, and which indeed had its echoes in the empires of India and China.
Diocletian, like most of the emperors in the late 3rd century, came from Dalmatia, the area that we used to call Yugoslavia and which today is Croatia or Serbia. Diocletian was born around 244 at Salona, near modern Split, which was indeed the palace which he built when he retired. Little is known of his early career and his rise to power; one suspects that he took care when Emperor to draw a veil over his early life, but he was clearly a first rate soldier and a charismatic leader. On the death of his predecessor Carinus, he was chosen by the soldiers to be emperor, murdering his only possible rival Aper on the way. His career was one of fighting and of numerous constitutional changes.
It is difficult to know where to begin in describing his many reforms. Perhaps the most momentous was that he divided the rule of the empire into four. There were to be two chief emperors who were called Augusti and there were two sub-emperors who were called Caesars. He himself became the Augustus of the East and made his headquarters in Nicomedia, not far from Constantinople, while his subordinate Caesar, Galerius, took control of the Illyrian provinces, and spent much of his time fighting the Persians. In the West, Maximian became Emperor while Constantius Chlorus became Caesar. Indeed it was Constantine, the son of Constantius, who was to be the second reforming emperor who in many ways completed these reforms by founding Constantinople as the capital of the Empire in the East.
This reform, this splitting the empire into four parts was probably necessary and probably contributed to the 4th century success of the Roman idea. Nevertheless it was a backward step and we need to consider the reasons behind it.
The reason why Rome was so successful under the Augustan reformation were reasons that modern business theorists today would understand. Augustus did indeed make himself supreme, but equally he shared power with the senate. Modern classicists were taught by Ronald Syme to regard this division as a sham, but I believe that it really worked. The senate really did have a major role – I was going to say that the senate did have real power, but power has become one of the voodoo words in the archaeologists’ discussion of the past, and it is the wrong concept with which to analyse the secret of Augustus’s success.
The senate had become a very interesting body in that it was partly hereditary — but you had to prove yourself by becoming one of the minor magistrates, but it was also partly appointed, and new senators were always being brought in. But there is no doubt that in the golden age of Rome, the two centuries after Augustus, the senate was where the action took place. Matters were discussed in the senate and decisions were reached here, and if the emperor always had the last word, nevertheless much of the administration was decided in the senate. The governors of the provinces were mostly senators. And since they all knew one another and shared basically the same set of values, the administration of the empire was kept very small . It was an old boys’ network with a sense of loyalty to each other and the concept of Rome, and it was extraordinarily effective.
We should also realise the strength of local self-government in the Roman Empire. One of the more surprising aspects of Pompeii is to realise that at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius, a major election was in progress, with election slogans painted on the walls everywhere. The towns clearly carried on a substantial degree of self-government and many of the vital local decisions were made locally. In the series of letters between the writer Pliny when he was Governor of the province of Bithynia and Emperor Trajan, there is a constant undercurrent of reporting about local government. The people of this town want to build an amphitheatre — should it be allowed? Trajan would reply somewhat tetchily – please don’t bother me with such matters — check that they can afford it, and if so, let them go ahead.
It is uncannily similar to modern management techniques where the directors of a subsidiary have to present accounts and refer major items of capital expenditure to head office, but are otherwise allowed considerable autonomy: this is something which is very necessary if a firm is to attract local directors of sufficient character and if the whole system is not to clog up with bureaucracy.
This is the system that Augustus put in place with great success and it meant that in the golden age the empire ran with the minimum of bureaucracy and one emperor at the centre could make all the major decisions. But by the time of Diocletian, the system was breaking down. Even minor decisions needed to be made at the centre, and no one man could control the whole. Splitting the empire into four was a sensible solution.
Diocletian was in effect the person who introduced centralised management into the Roman Empire. In the great days, the running of the empire had been amateurish, run on an old boys’ network with a minimum of bureaucracy, few controls and low taxes, and as so often, amateurism worked. Diocletian changed all this. The empire was professionalised: it was divided into four, the taxation system was thoroughly overhauled, a census was taken to find out who was who – and all this cost a lot of money. The numbers of bureaucrats rose enormously – there were soon as many bureaucrats as there were soldiers —and thus taxation had to be raised enormously from the previous low levels in order to pay for all the bureaucracy. It was a vicious circle. The new professionalism certainly gave the empire a new lease of life in the 4th century, but it also carried with it the rigidity and inflexibility that carried the seeds of the decline and fall in the fifth. And most important of all it marked a change from the open society that made the Roman Empire great, to the closed kinship-based society, typical of barbaric societies, the great empires of the pre-market age. There was a loss of freedom: was it worth it?