The Fourth Century

The Fourth Century

In the fourth century, Rome changed from civilisation to barbarism – and it was a great success.  Outwardly at least, Rome flourished , and regained some of its old optimism.  In the Empire as a whole, the fourth century sees a considerable revival of prosperity.   Admittedly this is a fairly new story. The traditional account sees the fourth century as one of decline, but fieldwalking – picking up pottery and coins over an area of countryside – has revealed that there is rather a lot of fourth century pottery found lying around in fields throughout the Empire as a whole, and this must surely indicate that the fourth century was economically a considerable success. The reforms of the Diocletian, combined with the consolidation of Constantine, began to pay off. It was a different society no doubt, and probably a harsher one, but when a more rigid structure is bolted on to the underlying strengths of the Roman market economy, the system, for a time, worked. We should never underestimate the strengths of barbarism, of a command economy.

Constantius Gallus, the half brother of Julian. The reverse shows Rome and Constantinople, Rome being left with spear, Constantinople right, with foot on prow of ship

Moneywise, inflation appears to have been to some extent conquered; at least it was conquered in as much as gold became increasingly used as the main repository of value.  The troops and the senior bureaucracy insisted on being paid in gold and it is very difficult to debase gold. At the other end of the scale,  the debasement of the copper coinage continued as strongly as before: however the effects of inflation seemed less noticeable: Had the peasants got used to the idea that copper coins would always be losing their value, and adapted their budgets accordingly? Large hoards of copper coins are regularly found at intervals in the fourth century.  Indeed the amount of debased copper coins found even in the most rural settlements has led some people to suggest that it was not until the fourth century that the economy was fully monetised and even the lower classes began using money.  Perhaps this is misleading, perhaps not.

The Barbarians

The Barbarians were a constant problem.  Whereas we tend to think that the Germans were the main problem, to the Romans it was the Persian Empire in the East that constantly posed the greater threat.  In the fourth century the Persian empire became a major threat under a new emperor, Shapur II.  He had a very long reign (309-379).  On the death of the previous emperor, his elder brother was killed to prevent him becoming emperor, the second brother was blinded for the same reason — this barbaric behaviour is surely why the Persian Empire was only intermittently successful — and Shapur II was crowned Emperor in utero, a crown being placed over his mother’s belly to proclaim the unborn child as Emperor.  However when he eventually grew up he became very successful and the Roman Emperor, Julian the Apostate died while fighting the Persians in AD363.

The Germans too gave a lot of trouble, though actually the problem was not the Germans but the Huns.  The Huns were fierce horsemen from central Asia who expanded in all directions,  giving trouble to the Chinese in the East and pushing down into Europe in the West where they reached the Hungarian plain, and the poor Goths, who lived in the plain, were pushed out and came down to the Danube and asked the Romans ‘please can we settle in Roman territory’.  At least that is the Roman version.  This was in AD 376,  but the Romans then behaved badly and would not sell them the food that they needed, because as refugees they had not brought enough food with them and had not had time to grow their own.   So the Goths then revolted,  and in AD 378 at the Battle of Adrianople roundly defeated the Romans – the worst defeat it was said since the Battle of Cannae in 216 BC.  Panic followed, but four years later a new Emperor, Theodosius, eventually to be known as Theodosius the Great,  eventually made peace and allowed the Goths to settle — on condition that they served in the Roman army. It was another, crucial step in  what proved to be a long and slippery path.

But the major change in the fourth century was the steady advance of Christianity.  Constantine had led the way by granting Christians privileges in taxation and allowing them to stand for high office, and their wealth and influence steadily increased.

The very enthusiasm of Christianity carried all before it. A H M Jones quotes Gregory of Nyssa in the final stage of the Arian controversy: ‘If you ask about your change, the shopkeeper philosophises to you about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you enquire the price of a loaf, the reply is: the Father is greater and the Son inferior: and if you say, ‘Is the bath ready?’ the attendant affirms that ‘the Son is of nothing’. Ordinary people, that is, at least learned the stock arguments and catchwords, and enjoyed argumentation. It was all rather like the Chinese communists quoting from Mao’s Little Red Book.

The situation was not unlike that in the Communist countries, or indeed in Nazi Germany where there was a double system of command, with the official structure of rulers and the bureaucracy being shadowed by the enthusiasts of the ‘party’, with party members, or bishops, being established at every stage to mirror and spy upon the activities of their civilian counterparts.

`But to return to conventional history, the situation after Constantine was very complicated.  The trouble was that after Constantine,  the rule was divided between his three sons, and to make it worse they were all named very similarly,   Constantine II, Constantius, and Constans.

Roman empire as divided by sons of Constantine in 339: orange = Constantine II, Green = Constans, beige = Dalmatius (a cousin), blue = Constantius II

We must begin the family history, not with Constantine the Great, but with his father Constantius Chlorus who was himself briefly emperor.  He had two wives, firstly Helena the mother of Constantine (who later became Saint Helena the Archaeologist, who went to Jerusalem and excavated the site at the Holy Sepulchre and found the True Cross). But he then had a second wife Theodora, who had another brood from whom Julian was descended.  Before Constantine died, he had failed to establish who was to be his successor, so his three sons: Constantine II, Constantius and Constans divided the empire between them and murdered all the offspring of Theodora, sparing only two young children: Julian aged five and his elder half-brother Gallus.  Psychologists have a lovely time with Julian whose parents were murdered by his uncles.

Constantius II, the most successful of the murderous brothers

The dominant of the three rulers proved to be Constantius who was suspicious of everyone and built up a spy network around him.  Julian was always guarded and from the age of thirteen to eighteen he lived with his elder half-brother Gallus in a palace at Macellum in central Turkey that was in effect an open prison.  When a crisis arose in the west Gallus was summoned away to be Caesar in the east, but Constantius became suspicious of him, summoned him back and murdered him.  It was not good for Julian’s psychology to have his half-brother and closest companion also murdered by his uncle.

Julian was brought up as a Christian but in those crucial years of semi-imprisonment at Macellum he read widely and was increasingly attracted to the pagan philosophers, particularly the philosophy founded by Plotinus (204 – 270) based mostly on Plato and thus called Neo-Platonism.  It was a highly intellectual philosophy that was not really suitable for mass consumption, though tinged with undertones of mysticism and magic. After his release from Macellum he went on to study at the top university – at Athens,  where his paganism increased, though of course all had to be kept secret, and openly he was a Christian.

Eventually in 355 another crisis arose in Gaul, so Julian, aged twenty-four, was summoned to be Caesar and sent to take control in Gaul.  Constantius did not really trust him – he trusted nobody, and though Julian was Caesar, the real power lay with the Praetorian prefect who was by this time in effect the Governor of the province.  But Julian was successful: he proved to be a very capable general, sharing hardships with his troops and thus gaining the approval of the army and soon at a battle near Strasbourg won a major victory over the Alamanni, the invading German tribes, whose name is still remembered in the French word for Germany, ‘Allemagne’.  His army of only 13,000 defeated the German army of 35,000 with only 243 Roman soldiers killed.  The German king was captured and sent back to Rome where he died.

But it is time to look at Julian in more detail, for his story reveals much of what was going wrong with the Roman Empire and how he tried in vain to put it right.

Julian the Apostate

24th June 2021