March 2, 2016
Our last discussion of Roman history ended with the accession of Diocletian in 284 AD, which ended the fifty years of turmoil known as The Crisis of the Third Century. Diocletian was able to establish order, and remain in power for twenty years. Diocletian realized that, if he stayed in Rome and sent generals to defend the frontiers, the generals would challenge his authority, and turn their weapons against him. So he stayed near the frontier himself, visiting Rome only once in his long reign.
Diocletian also realized that, if he was on one frontier (northeast Gaul, for example), he couldn’t cope with an incursion on another frontier (Mesopotamia, for example). So he took a partner, a co-emperor, an army associate named Maximian. Like Diocletian, Maximian was from the Danube region, and was a career soldier. Our authors say that Maximian played Agrippa to Diocletian’s Augustus. Wikipedia says that Diocletian’s “political brain complemented Maximian’s military brawn.” While Diocletian and Maximian were partners, Diocletian was the senior partner, and took the title “Jovius,” while giving Maximian the lesser title “Herculius.”
In the previous issue, I mentioned that, around 250 AD, “the Saxons, a north-German tribe, began operating pirate ships in the English Channel.” By 290 AD, the Saxons were raiding the English coast. After the Romans withdrew from England around 410 AD, the Saxons established themselves in England, along with another German tribe, the Angles. This period of English history (after the Romans, and before the Norman Conquest of 1066) is sometimes called the Anglo-Saxon period. Saxon influence is apparent in some English place-names, such as Essex (east Saxons), Sussex (south Saxons), and Wessex (west Saxons).
To suppress the Saxon pirates in the English Channel, Maximian chose a man named Carausius. Carausius suppressed the pirates, then decided to set up his own empire in Britain, as Postumus had done earlier in Gaul. To keep out Saxon raiders, Carausius built forts along the southern and eastern coasts of England; these are called Saxon Shore Forts.
While Maximian was occupied in Gaul, Diocletian made his headquarters in Asia Minor, marching forth to beat back incursions along the Danube, in Syria, etc. In 293 AD, after reigning for about ten years, Diocletian decided to bring two younger officers, Constantius and Galerius, into his partnership. This is sometimes called Diocletian’s “Tetrarchy” (four-man rule). While the older partners, Diocletian and Maximian, were called “Augustus,” the younger partners were called “Caesar.” The younger partners became heirs apparent, stabilizing the succession. Marriage cemented the Tetrarchy: Galerius divorced his wife and married Diocletian’s daughter, while Constantius divorced Helena, mother of Constantine, and married Maximian’s step-daughter.
In 296 AD, Constantius brought Britain back into the fold, defeating the “British Empire” that had been set up by Carausius. For the most part, the Tetrarchy kept the Roman army united, avoiding civil war. This united army was able to defend the borders against barbarian incursions. In 296, one of the junior Tetrarchs, Galerius, re-asserted Roman control over Mesopotamia by defeating a Sassanid/Persian king, and capturing Ctesiphon, the Sassanid capital.
Our authors say that, while the Tetrarchy seemed like a good system, it was only as good as the man in charge, Diocletian. When Diocletian and Maximian retired in 305 AD, the Tetrarchy began to fray. The junior Tetrarchs, Constantius and Galerius, rose to become senior Tetrarchs, with the rank of Augustus, and two younger men (Severus and Maximinus Daia) were brought into the Tetrarchy. But no one kept the Tetrarchy united; Constantius and Galerius formed “separate and rival sovereignties.”1
In the rivalry between Constantius and Galerius, Galerius seemed to hold most of the cards. The junior Tetrarchs sided with Galerius — Severus was an old friend, Maximinus Daia a nephew — so Galerius controlled most of the provinces. Furthermore, Galerius held Constantine (Constantius’ son) as a virtual prisoner at his court.
In 305 AD, Constantius, who had defeated the “British Empire” of Carausius ten years earlier, decided to lead an expedition against the Scottish tribes. “He seized this chance to ask Galerius to let his son Constantine join him for the campaign.”2 To avoid a civil war, Galerius granted this request, and Constantine packed his bags. Fearing attack from Galerius or Severus, Constantine raced toward his father at top speed, killing the post horses along his route, to slow anyone pursuing him.
After father and son finished their Scottish campaign, Constantius died and the army proclaimed Constantine “Augustus” (senior Tetrarch), the title that Constantius had held. Galerius, however, wouldn’t agree to this arrangement, instead promoting Severus from “Caesar” to “Augustus,” and giving Constantine the lesser title of “Caesar.” For the moment, everyone was satisfied, and civil war was averted.
Meanwhile, the population of Rome had grown restless, perhaps because of their tax burdens, and revolted against Severus (Italy was one of the provinces assigned to Severus). The leader of the revolt was Maxentius, son of Diocletian’s partner Maximian. Southern Italy and Africa supported Maxentius, while northern Italy remained loyal to Severus.
Maxentius and Severus prepared for war. Maxentius called his father out of retirement, and Maximian resumed his old title “Augustus.” When Severus tried to march on Rome, his troops defected, and he was taken prisoner by Maximian; Severus later died in captivity.
Maxentius and Maximian expected an invasion of Italy by Galerius, so they reached out to Constantine. Maximian offered Constantine his daughter in marriage, and recognized him as “Augustus.” Constantine, in turn, recognized Maxentius as “Augustus.” But before the new alliance could come to fruition, Maximian quarreled with his son, Maxentius, and took refuge with Constantine.
Galerius tried to reach a settlement through discussion, and in 308 AD, called a conference at Carnuntum (in modern Austria, on the Danube). He persuaded the old partners, Diocletian and Maximian, to attend the conference, but Constantine and Maxentius didn’t attend. Diocletian refused to return to power, preferring to remain in retirement, and he persuaded Maximian to retire again. Galerius chose an old comrade, Licinius, to replace Severus, so the Tetrarchy now consisted of Galerius, Licinius, Constantine, and Maximinus Daia. Maxentius was declared a usurper, but still wielded considerable power, controlling both Italy and Spain (he soon controlled Africa, too).
In 310 AD, Maximian, the old war horse, died, and in the following year, Galerius died. Galerius thought he was laid low by the Christian God, in revenge for his persecution of Christianity, so on his deathbed, Galerius repented and asked the Christian God for forgiveness. This seemed to make a “deep impression” on Constantine, and may have influenced Constantine’s later decision to convert to Christianity.
With Maximian and Galerius out of the picture, the Empire was now controlled by Constantine, Maxentius, Licinius, and Maximinus Daia. Constantine made an alliance with Licinius, and married his sister to Licinius.
In 312 AD, Constantine declared war on Maxentius, and marched from Gaul into Italy. He drove Maxentius from northern Italy, so Maxentius retreated behind the walls of Rome. Then Maxentius changed his mind, and led his army out of Rome. The two armies clashed at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. Maxentius was defeated, and Constantine marched into Rome, displaying Maxentius’ head on the point of a spear.
Our authors say that it was risky for Constantine to invade Italy. His army was smaller than that of Maxentius. Perhaps Constantine was emboldened by his new faith in Christianity. His soldiers adorned their shields with a Christian symbol, the Chi Rho. This symbol blends the first two letters of the Greek “Christos,” that is, it blends X and P. It is said that, before the Battle of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine had a vision of a cross, or a Chi Rho, with the words “In hoc signo vinces” (Under this sign you will conquer).
The Chi Rho, a Christian symbol
A Chi Rho surrounded by a wreath. Note the Alpha and Omega symbols
A coin with Constantine on one side, and a Chi Rho,
A Chi Rho in a contemporary church, flanked by Alpha and Omega
After the battle, Constantine erected a statue of himself holding a cross. He also ended persecution of Christians. He tried to buttress his rule with the spiritual power of the Church. He broke with the past, and put Roman civilization on a new path.
In 312 AD, however, Constantine wasn’t yet the sole emperor. He had defeated Maxentius, and he controlled the western Empire. The eastern Empire was still divided between Licinius and Maximinus Daia. In 313 AD, Licinius defeated Maximinus Daia, and became sole ruler in the East. Soon Licinius clashed with Constantine, but the two rulers came to terms, and divided the empire between them. This agreement lasted for about ten years, and then Licinius and Constantine fought again. Finally Licinius was defeated, and in 324 AD, Constantine became the sole ruler of a united Empire. He made Constantinople the new capital.
In 325 AD, Constantine presided over the First Council of Nicaea, which was called an “ecumenical” council because it summoned bishops from throughout the Empire. The purpose of the First Council of Nicaea (and of later councils) was to resolve theological differences. “Constantine sitting amongst the Christian bishops at the ecumenical council of Nicaea is in his own person the beginning of Europe’s Middle Age.”3
The First Council of Nicaea was convoked partly because the Church was divided over the unorthodox views of Arius (the “Arian heresy”). Arius had said that God the Father existed prior to the Son of God. The orthodox view, expressed by the First Council of Nicaea, was that God and Jesus were not separate beings, but rather the same being; they were consubstantial and co-eternal. Though Constantine struggled to unite the Church, heresies and quarrels kept popping up.
Turning to constitutional changes, our authors say that the old republican magistracies were being hollowed out. Tribunes and aediles no longer existed, their duties being performed by imperial prefects — prefects of the city (praefecti urbi), of the corn supply (annonae), and of the firemen/policemen (vigilum). The consulate still existed, and sometimes emperors held the office, but the only function of consuls was “to give their name to the current year.”4 As Constantine created a Senate in Constantinople, so he had one consul in Constantinople, the other in Rome.
Praetors no longer had judicial responsibilities, quaestors no longer had financial responsibilities; both judicial and financial responsibilities were carried out by imperial officials. The only responsibility of praetors and quaestors was to organize games and dramas. The Senate was still prestigious, representing “Roman civilization in contrast with the growing barbarism of the military.”5 But the Senate had little real power. It no longer had the task of supervising magistrates, no longer minted small coins, and no longer put its stamp of approval on new emperors. “Roman emperors became autocrats ruling in their own right — subject only to the acclamatio of the soldiers.”6
The emperor became known as dominus (lord) instead of princeps (princeps might be translated “first citizen” or “first among equals”). The “principate” became a “dominate,” and the emperor became an absolute monarch. The emperor was described as “sacred,” God’s deputy. Constantine introduced the elaborate etiquette of a Persian court, partly to impress the people, partly to increase security; Constantine even imported eunuchs from Persia, employing them as palace servants.
The imperial bureaucracy became bloated, and it was difficult for the emperors to control their own bureaucrats. Officials enriched themselves by preying on the populace, like proconsuls and tax-collectors in the time of Cicero. Officials took bribes, sold government positions, etc. The emperors fought back, and strove to control the bureaucrats; the emperors issued decrees, occasionally executed wrongdoers, and hired spies (agentes in rebus) to observe the administration. “But in the end [the emperors] were regularly outwitted by the organized collusion of their servants.”8
The military anarchy of the 3rd century, and the invasions of Germanic tribes, had taken a heavy toll on the economy, and reduced tax revenues. But government expenditures weren’t reduced.
When the number of soldiers rose, the government tried to cut costs by hiring Germans at lower rates (our authors call this “a dubious economy”).
The economy suffered from “a pervasive sense of insecurity.”9B Instead of planning new businesses and new trade routes, people hoarded their money, hence coin hoards from the third and fourth centuries are often found. “Freedom of travel [was] rudely interrupted.” Since the government demanded taxes from the upper classes, people of modest means had little incentive to rise; the aim was survival. Much farmland was left uncultivated (especially on insecure frontiers), and gradually returned to a wild state. Industries like glass and ceramics declined.
As industry and trade declined, cities declined, too, and became smaller; “the new ring-walls of the third and fourth centuries enclosed but a quarter or less of their former area.” As cities declined, country estates became more important. “These great landlords became immensely powerful, and their self-sufficient estates foreshadowed the later feudal manors.” While Greco-Roman society was fundamentally urban, medieval society was to be rural.
The economy was somewhat stronger in the eastern empire, which was less affected by invasions than the western empire. Most invaders were Germans who crossed the Rhine or Danube; the eastern Mediterranean was more secure. Perhaps this is why, long after the western empire had fallen to the barbarians, the eastern or Byzantine empire survived.
North Africa was also relatively secure, and could sell its grain and oil to Rome; this business lasted until Rome was sacked in 410 AD by the Visigoths under King Alaric. North Africa itself was overrun by the Vandals around 430 AD.
When the government debased the currency, prices rose, and some landlords began accepting payment “in kind” (that is, payment in the form of food and other things of value). The government wouldn’t accept its own debased coins as tax payments, and often insisted on gold and silver. In 302 AD, Diocletian decreed a “price freeze,” hoping to stop inflation. “Goods vanished from the markets, [and] the edict was soon disregarded.” Small coins, made of copper, continued to lose value, so purchases were made not with a pocketful of coins, or even a purse of coins, but rather a bag of coins; “for larger transactions sealed bags (folles) of small coppers were used.” (One is reminded of the witticism, “I once carried my money in my pocket, and my purchases in big bags, but as a result of inflation, I carry my money in big bags, and my purchases in my pocket.”)
In 309 AD, Constantine brought some stability to the currency by minting a new gold coin, the solidus, which replaced an earlier gold coin called the aureus. The weight of a solidus was 1/72 of a pound, or about 5 grams. “The solidus was maintained essentially unaltered in weight, dimensions and purity until the 10th century.”10 The solidus was smaller than a pound, larger than a denarius.
This coin system is the ancestor of European systems such as the English system of pounds, shillings, and pence, abbreviated £sd. These systems are sometimes called “pre-decimal” systems, and they’ve been replaced by decimal systems (1 British pound now equals 100 pence).
£ comes from the Latin libra (weight), which is short for libra pondo (“a pound by weight”). Pound is abbreviated “lb” because it comes from libra. The s in £sd comes from solidus, and the d in £sd comes from denarius. While the solidus was made of gold, the English system was based on silver (sterling silver, pound sterling). The Arab “dinar” and the Spanish “dinero” come from denarius. The French “livre” and the Italian “lira” come from libra. The word “soldier” comes from solidus, and originally meant mercenary, one who is paid.
Just as landlords often received rent “in kind,” so too the government often received taxes in the form of food and labor. Diocletian established a system of requisitions (indictiones), based on land (iugum) and population (caput). The government would add up the amount of food that was needed by the army, by people on the dole, etc. It would also add up the number of recruits needed by the army, the amount of military equipment needed, the number of horses needed for mail-delivery, the number of laborers needed for public works, etc. When all these goods were added up, they’d be divided among the provinces. “The state very largely managed to do without the use of money.”11
After the assessments were made, prominent locals (curiales) were responsible for collecting the goods (our authors call this “a system of corporate responsibility”). As the government pressured the curiales, so the curiales pressured the taxpayers. Burdened with these responsibilities, curiales were tempted to enter a tax-exempt profession, such as doctor, soldier, priest, or bureaucrat. But the government needed the curiales, so it forbade them to switch jobs, or to re-locate; it even forbade their children from switching jobs.
The same logic applied to other careers. The government needed various goods from various trades, so it prohibited people from changing trades or changing domicile. The laissez-faire economy of Augustus’ day became a state-controlled economy, similar to Communism. “As far as possible the status quo was to be upheld, with all men continuing in their current occupations and their sons following in their footsteps.”12
When this principle was applied in the countryside, the result was serfdom. Landlords argued that they couldn’t pay taxes if slaves were scarce, and if farmers were free to wander away, so farmers were tied to the land, and became serfs; even their children were forbidden to leave. In 332 AD, during the reign of Constantine, a law was enacted allowing landlords to chain tenant farmers. Slavery was dying out, but the status of farmers was approaching that of slaves.
Some large estates were privately owned, others were owned by the emperor. Around 250 AD, serfdom began to develop on both private estates and imperial estates.
Like the Five Good Emperors (96 AD to 192 AD), Diocletian and Constantine tried to make the legal system more humane. Crucifixion was abolished, as was branding on the face. Fathers no longer had absolute power over their family, and parents were no longer allowed to sell their children.
In the West, the Romance languages were beginning to emerge, and Latin was becoming “a second language for the learned classes.”12B Greek was disappearing. In the East, the Christian church used Greek in Asia Minor, but elsewhere it used vernacular languages — Armenian, Coptic, Syrian, etc.
Despite the fifty years of military anarchy (235 to 284 AD), despite invasions from all directions (some of which threatened Rome itself), the Romans were able to regain lost ground, and during the reign of Diocletian (284 to 305 AD), the Empire had lost nothing of its former extent, except the province of Dacia (a province north of the Danube, in what is now western Romania). The Empire’s borders were strengthened with walls, forts, and military roads. Even if barbarians breached the border, they would encounter cities with their own walls, and the barbarians didn’t have siege-engines capable of breaking through city walls. The Germans “might overrun a countryside in a sudden foray, [but] they seldom succeeded in reducing a town, except by the process of slow starvation, for which they had no patience.”13 The walls around Constantinople were so strongly built that they “defied all attacks for nearly a thousand years” (the Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople in 1453).
Le Mans, France
During the reign of Constantine (306-337 AD), the Empire was almost as secure as it was under the Antonines (138-180 AD). “Britain enjoyed during the first half of the fourth century a period of peace and prosperity, perhaps even greater than that of the Antonine era.” This peace and prosperity was partly the result of military reforms, such as improved officer-training, and improved cavalry.
Diocletian decided that the army had become immobile; troops on one section of the border couldn’t help in another section, lest their own section be left unguarded. So he divided the army into two parts; one part would guard the border, while the other would stay behind the border, and act as a “mobile reserve.” The number of troops was sharply increased, perhaps doubled. Many sons of soldiers became soldiers themselves.
The overall quality of the troops wasn’t as high as in earlier centuries; the troops “lacked the capacity for strict discipline,” didn’t wear as much armor, etc. But as long as the Empire wasn’t torn apart by civil war, the border was generally secure.
The greatest achievement of Diocletian and Constantine, our authors argue, is laying the foundations for a stable empire in the East, the Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. When the barbarians finally overran the western Empire, the Byzantine Empire survived and prospered.
It’s sometimes said that Trump uses “identity politics,” appealing to whites. Trump announced his candidacy with an inflammatory speech in which he derided illegal immigrants (from Mexico) as “rapists.” Trump was recently endorsed by David Duke, a former Klan leader. One reason why Duke doesn’t support Cruz or Rubio is that they both have Cuban roots, and are thus Hispanic. Duke seems to believe that Trump would pursue pro-white policies; “I hope he does everything we hope he will do,” Duke said.
The right-wing French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen has spoken favorably of Trump. Putin, the Russian leader, praised Trump, perhaps because Putin thinks that the U.S. should maintain its vanishing “whiteness” (Putin’s cronies have met with, and donated to, far-right European parties). Meanwhile, white supremacists in the U.S. and Europe sing the praises of Putin’s Russia. For example, an American named Richard Spencer said, “I think we should be pro-Russia because Russia is the great white power that exists in the world.”
The former leader of Mexico, Vicente Fox, was infuriated by the notion that Mexicans were Untermenschen; Fox said that Trump reminded him of Hitler, and Fox said he wasn’t going to pay for Trump’s “fucking wall.”
Fox’s use of the “F word” shows Trump’s influence, shows how rudeness/crudeness spreads like an epidemic, shows how even Trump’s foes imitate his style. Another Trump foe, Marco Rubio, recently began using “Trump Speak,” talking about Trump wetting his pants, etc.
One explanation of Trump’s popularity is that he’s playing the “white card,” playing it indirectly and subtly. It’s difficult to say whether Trump plays the white card from conviction, or to get votes, or both. The white card can be effective in a Republican primary, as the black card can be effective in a Democratic primary, but it remains to be seen whether Trump can play the white card successfully in a general election.
In many respects, Trump is a “Tea Party Republican,” and he has the popularity that many Tea Party candidates had. Trump is as critical of mainstream Republicans as he is of Democrats; he says that the Bush Administration knew that the 9/11 attacks were coming, and he says that George W. Bush knew that Saddam didn’t possess WMD (“Bush lied us into war”). Like many Tea Party sympathizers, Trump sees conspiracies everywhere — the Federal Reserve is a conspiracy, etc. Trump questioned whether Obama was born in the U.S., whether Cruz could legally become President, etc.
One reason why Bill Clinton was able to rise from humble origins to become President is that, at an early age, he set his sights on the White House, and began preparing for a political career. When he was 17, Clinton met President Kennedy, and that fired his ambition. Trump also planned a Presidential run for many years. Click here for a 1988 interview in which Trump talks about running for President. Click here for a good Frontline documentary about Trump and Clinton.
A. I discovered a book called The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War. The subtitle refers both to family quarrels and world wars. The Wittgenstein family is known for their wealth, for their musical talent, and for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. The author of The House of Wittgenstein, Alexander Waugh, is the grandson of Evelyn Waugh; Alexander wrote a book about his own family, Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family. Alexander is now 52, and a leading figure in the Oxfordian movement, the movement that promotes the Earl of Oxford as the true author of the works ascribed to Shakespeare.
I recommend Waugh’s short essay on Polimanteia, a 1595 book that mentions Shakespeare, and drops hints about the Earl of Oxford. Waugh speaks of, “the acknowledged Elizabethan passion for double meanings, hidden messages and cryptic allusions.” Waugh discovers a cryptic allusion to Oxford17 in Polimanteia.
B. I discovered a book called Stasiland, which deals with the EastGerman secret police, the Stasi. Written by an Australian, Anna Funder, Stasiland was published in 2003, about fourteen years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Stasiland has been translated into numerous foreign languages, and won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-Fiction.
C. I discovered an Italian historian named Carlo Ginzburg. Now 76, Ginzburg has a high reputation in the academic world. He’s best known for a book called The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth Century Miller. Because he sometimes writes about obscure people and small subjects, Ginzburg is placed in the category “Micro-history.” Ginzburg has written about the similarity between a historian’s search for truth and a detective’s search for truth; one of his books is called Clues, Myths and the Historical Method, and another is called The Judge and the Historian. Ginzburg has also written about folk beliefs, witchcraft, etc. One of his first books was called The Night Battles: Witchcraft and Agrarian Cults in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Ginzburg comes from a cultured family; his mother was a prominent author, his father was in the Resistance movement and died in a Fascist prison at age 34.
D. I discovered a pair of well-regarded books about World War II:
E. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is an old movie (1945) and a good one. It’s based on a popular novel by Betty Smith. It’s about life — birth and death, love and learning. It’s easy to understand why it was a popular novel: the plot is continually moving, but easy to follow, and it has a ring of truth. It’s about growing up in an immigrant family in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 1900s.14
F. The Great Beauty (2013) is an Italian movie about an aging writer who has a busy social life but no sense of purpose or meaning. At the end of the movie, he says that he hasn’t written a novel in decades because he was looking for “the great beauty,” but now he realizes that life offers only glimpses of beauty. After realizing this, he seems ready to write again. The movie has little plot, but delights many viewers with its scenes and music. It has been called a contemporary version of La Dolce Vita (1960), which is also about a writer who lives in the fast lane, but finds it meaningless. I’m not a fan of The Great Beauty; it has beautiful scenes/images, but I don’t think that’s enough.
|1.|| Ch. 42, #1 back|
|2.|| Ch. 42, #2 back|
|3.|| Ch. 42, #3. Our authors say that Constantine had “a good literary education,” and “took pleasure in the society of scholars.” (Ch. 43, #4) back|
|4.|| Ch. 42, #4 back|
|5.|| Ch. 42, #4 back|
|6.|| Ch. 42, #4 back|
|7.|| Ch. 42, #5 back|
|8.|| Ch. 42, #5 back|
|9.|| Ch. 42, #6 back|
|9B.||Ch. 43, #1 back|
|10.|| Wikipedia back|
|11.|| Ch. 42, #6 back|
|12.|| Ch. 42, #7 back|
|12B.|| Ch. 43, #4 back|
|13.|| Ch. 42, #8 back|
|13B.||Greg Mitchell wrote The Tunnels, which deals with escaping from East Germany. back|
|14.||Wikipedia says the family is Irish, and the family’s name (Nolan) is Irish. But the grandmother’s accent is German, Williamsburg was known for its German immigrants, and the novel’s author, Betty Smith, had a German father and a German mother. back|