The Decline Of The Empire

Able or virtuous princes had now ruled the Roman world, with a few

exceptions, from Julius Caesar to Commodus, a period of more than two

hundred years. Among these were some odious tyrants, or madmen, who were

removed by assassination. But some of these very tyrants governed with

ability, and such was the general prosperity, such the wonderful mechanism

of government for which the Romans had a genius, that the general

ondition of the world was better than at any preceding period. All that

government could do to preserve and extend civilization was done, on the

whole. Despotism was not signally oppressive, and the regime of

Augustus, of Vespasian, and Hadrian was generally maintained. The Roman

governors, appointed by the emperors, ruled more wisely and beneficently

than in the time of the republic. Peace, security, and law reigned, and,

in consequence, the population increased, civilization advanced, and

wealth was accumulated. The whole empire rejoiced in populous cities, in

works of art, in literary culture, and in genial manners. Society was

pagan, but attractive, and Rome herself was the resort of travelers, the

centre of fashion and glory, the joy and the pride of the whole earth.

There were no destructive wars, except on the frontiers; all classes were

secure, the face of nature was cultivated and beautiful, and poets sung

the praises of civilization such as never existed but in isolated cities

and countries.

But now we observe the commencement of a great and melancholy

change. Prosperity had led to vice, false security, and pride. All classes

had become corrupt. Disproportionate fortunes, slavery, and luxury

undermined the moral health, and destroyed not only elevation of sentiment

but martial virtues. Literature declined in spirit and taste, and was

directed to frivolous subjects. Christianity had not become a power

sufficiently strong to change or modify the corrupt institutions

controlled by the powerful classes. The expensive luxury of the nobles was

almost incredible. The most distant provinces were ransacked for game,

fish, and fowl for the tables of the great. Usury was practiced at a

ruinous rate. Every thing was measured by the money standard. Art was

prostituted to please degraded tastes. There was no dignity of character;

women were degraded; only passing vanities made any impression on

egotistical classes; games and festivals were multiplied; gladiatorial

sports outraged humanity; the descendants of the proudest families prided

themselves chiefly on their puerile frivolities; the worst rites of

paganism were practiced; slaves performed the most important functions;

the circus and the theatre were engrossing pleasures; the baths were the

resort of the idle and the luxurious, who almost lived in them, and were

scenes of disgraceful orgies; great extravagance in dress and ornaments

was universal; the pleasures of the table degenerated to riotous excesses;

cooks, buffoons, and dancers received more consideration than scholars and

philosophers; everybody worshiped the shrine of mammon; all science was

directed to utilities that demoralized; sensualism reigned triumphant, and

the people lived as if there were no God.

Such a state must prepare the way for violence, and when external

dangers came there were not sufficient virtues to meet them. But the

decline was gradual, and dangers were still at a distance. Both nature and

art were the objects of perpetual panegyric, and the worldly and sensual

Romans dreamed only of a millennium of protracted joys.

The last experiment of a constitutional empire was succeeded by

undisguised military despotism, and no one now desired or expected the

restoration of the republic. The Senate was servile and submissive, the

people had no voice in public affairs, and the prefects of the imperial

guard were the recognized lieutenants and often masters of the emperors.

Pertinax succeeded to the sceptre of Commodus, a wise and good

man, and great hopes were entertained of a beneficent reign, when they

were suddenly blasted by a sedition of the praetorians, only eighty-six

days after the death of Commodus, and these guards publicly sold the

empire to Didius Julianus, a wealthy senator, at the price of one thousand

dollars to each soldier. Such a bargain disgusted the capital, and raised

the legions in the provinces to revolt. Each of the three principal armies

set up their own candidate, but L. Septimius Severus, who commanded in

Illyricum, was the fortunate one, and was confirmed by the Senate. Didius

Julianus was murdered after a brief reign of sixty-six days, and the

praetorians who had created the scandal were disbanded.

The reign of this general was able and fortunate, although he was cruel

and superstitious. His vigor prevented the separation of the empire for a

century; but he had powerful rivals in Clodius Albinus, in Britain, and

Pescennius Niger, in Syria, both of whom he subdued. At Lyons it is said

that one hundred and fifty thousand Romans fought on both sides, when

Albinus was killed. The full of Niger at the Hellespont insured the

submission of the East, and the victorious emperor penetrated as far as

Ctesiphon, and received the submission of Mesopotamia and Arabia. The

triumphal arch erected by him celebrated those military successes.

Having bestowed peace, and restored the dignity of the empire,

this martial prince established an undisguised military despotism, and

threw aside all deference to the Senate. He created a new guard of

praetorian soldiers four times as numerous as the old, which were recruited

from the ranks of the barbarians, who thus began to overawe the capital.

The commander of this great force was no less a man than the celebrated

jurist, Papianus, and he was the prime minister of the emperor. It was

during his reign that a violent persecution of the Christians took place,

A.D. 200, which called out the famous apology of Tertullian. Severus died

in Britain, to which he was summoned by an irruption of Caledonians, A.D.

211, having reigned nineteen years, and with a vigor worthy of Trajan.

He left two sons, who are best known by the names of Caracalla and

Geta, and both of whom, in their father's lifetime, had been raised to the

dignity of Augustus. The oldest son succeeded to the empire, and the year

after his elevation murdered his brother in his mother's arms. He also

executed Papinian, the praetorian prefect, because he refused to justify

the fratricide, together with twenty thousand persons who were the friends

of Geta. After this wholesale murder he left his capital, and never

returned to it, spending his time in different provinces, which were

alternately the scene of his cruelty and rapine, a victim of the foulest

superstitions of the East, and arrogant and vainglorious as he was savage.

His tyranny became unendurable, and he was murdered by an agent of the

praetorian prefect, A.D. 217, Opilius Macrinus, who became the next


Macrinus was only elevated to the purple by promising rich

donations to the soldiers, for his rank was only that of a knight. He

undertook to restore discipline in the army, and the licentious soldiery

found a new candidate for the empire in the person of Avitus, of the

family of Severus, a beautiful boy of seventeen, who officiated as priest

of the sun in Syria, and whose name in history, from the god he served, is

called Elagabalus, or Heliogabalus. But Macrinus was at the head of a

formidable force, and fought his rival with bravery, but without success.

The battle was decided against him, and he was overtaken in flight and put

to death, A.D. 218.

With Elagabalus is associated the most repulsive and loathsome

reign of all the emperors. He was guilty of the most shameless

obscenities, and the most degrading superstitions. He painted and dressed

himself like an Oriental prince; he banqueted in halls hung with cloth of

gold, and enriched with jewels; he slept on mattresses stuffed with down

found only under the wings of partridges; he dined from tables of pure

gold; he danced in public, arrayed in the garb of a Syrian priest; and he

collected in his capital all the forms of idolatry and all the hideous

abominations which even Grecian paganism despised. This wretch, who

insulted every consecrated sentiment, was murdered after a reign of little

more than three years, A.D. 222, and his body was thrown into the Tiber,

and his memory branded with infamy by the Senate.

The praetorians, who now controlled the State, offered the purple

to his cousin, Alexander Severus, grand-nephew of Septimius Severus, an

emperor who adorned those degenerate times, and who resembled the great

Aurelius in the severity of his virtues. His prime minister--the prefect of

the praetorian guards--was the celebrated Ulpian, the greatest of Roman

jurists, and next to him in dignity and power was the historian, Dion

Cassius, consul, governor in Africa, and legate in Dalmatia.

The great labors of Alexander Severus were to quell the mutinous

spirit of the praetorian guards, who reveled in the spoil of the empire; to

subdue the Persians; and to repel barbarian inroads on the western

frontiers. It was while he was in Thrace that a young barbarian of

gigantic stature solicited permission to contend for the prize of

wrestling. Sixteen of the stoutest Roman soldiers he successively

overthrew, and he was permitted to enlist among the troops. The next day

he attracted the notice of the emperor, and again contended successfully

with seven of the Roman champions, and received, at the hand of the

emperor, a gold collar and a place in the body-guard. He rose, step by

step, till appointed to discipline the recruits of the army of the Rhine.

He became the favorite of the army, and was saluted as imperator. Severus

fled to his tent, and was assassinated, A.D. 235.

The savage, Maximin, who now governed the empire, ruled like a

barbarian, as he was, disdaining all culture, and hostile to all

refinements. Confiscations, exile, or death awaited the few illustrious

men who adorned the age. Only brute force was recognized as a claim to

imperial favor. The sole object of Maximin was to secure the favor of the

soldiers, barbarians like himself, whom he propitiated with exorbitant

donations, extorted by fines and confiscations, and derived from the sack

of temples. He lived in the camp, and knew nothing of the cities he ruled.

Such outrages of course provoked rebellion, and M. Antonius

Gordianus, the proconsul of Africa, a descendant of the Gracchi and of

Trajan, distinguished for wealth and culture, was proclaimed emperor, at

the age of eighty, who associated with him, in the government, his son.

The Senate confirmed the Gordians, who fixed their court at Carthage, but

Maximin suppressed the insurrection, and proceeded to Rome to satisfy his

vengeance. The Senate, in despair, conferred the purple on two members of

their own body, Maximus, an able soldier, and Balbinus, a poet and orator.

The praetorians supported their claims, and Maximin was assassinated in his

tent, A.D. 238. But the new emperors had scarcely given promise of a wise

administration, before they in turn were assassinated by the praetorians,

and Gordian, a grandson of the first of that name, was elevated to the

imperial dignity. He, again, was soon murdered in a mutiny of the

soldiers, who elected Philip as his successor, A.D. 244. This emperor,

whose reign was marked by the celebration of the secular games with

unwonted magnificence, to commemorate the one thousand years since Rome

was founded, was put to death by the praetorian guards the following year,

and the dignity of Augustus was conferred on Decius.

His reign is memorable for a savage persecution of the Christians,

and the victories of the Goths, who, in the preceding reign, had

penetrated to Dacia, and conquered Moesia. The next twenty years were

mournful and disgraceful. The emperor marched against these barbarians in

person, but was defeated by them in Thrace, and lost his life at a place

called Abrutum, A.D. 251. The Goths continued their ravages along the

coasts of the Euxine, and made themselves masters of the Crimea. They then

sailed, with a large fleet, to the northern parts of the Euxine, took

Pityus and Trapezus, attacked the wealthy cities of the Thracian

Bosphorus, conquered Chalcedon, Nicomedia, and Nice, and retreated laden

with spoil. The next year, with five hundred boats, they pursued their

destructive navigation, destroyed Cyzicus, crossed the AEgean, landed at

Athens, plundered Thebes, Argos, Corinth and Sparta, advanced to the

coasts of Epirus, and devastated the whole Illyrian peninsula. In their

ravages they destroyed the famous temple of Ephesus, and, wearied with

plunder, returned through Moesia to their own settlements beyond the


During this raid, the son of Decius, Hostilianus, reigned in

conjunction with Gallus, one of the generals of Decius, but were put to

death by AEmilianus, governor of Pannonia and Moesia, who had succeeded in

gaining a victory over the new and terrible enemy. He was in turn

overthrown by Valerianus--a nobleman of great distinction, who signalized

himself by considerable military ability, and who associated with himself

in the empire his son, Gallienus, A.D. 253, whose frivolities were an

offset to the virtues of his father. Valerian was taken prisoner by Sapor,

king of Persia, and shortly after died, and the Roman world relapsed under

the sway of his son, and at a time of great calamity, memorable for the

successes of the Goths, and the direst pestilence which had ever visited

the empire. Gallienus--not without accomplishments, but utterly unfit to

govern an empire in the stormy times which witnessed the fierce irruptions

of the Goths--was slain by a conspiracy of his officers, A.D. 268.

The empire was now threatened by barbarians, and wasted by

pestilence, and distracted by rebellions and riots. It was on the verge of

ruin; but the ruin was averted for one hundred years by a succession of

great princes, who traced their origin to the martial province of

Illyricum. The first of these emperors was Claudius, one of the generals

of Gallienus, and was fifty-four years of age when invested with the

purple. He led the armies of the waning empire against the Alemanni, who

had invaded Italy, and drove them beyond the Alps. But a fiercer tribe of

Germanic barbarians remained to be subdued or repelled--those who had

devastated Greece--the Goths. They again appeared upon the Euxine with a

fleet, variously estimated from two thousand to six thousand vessels,

carrying three hundred and twenty thousand men. A division of this vast,

but undisciplined force, invaded Crete and Cyprus, but the main body

ravaged Macedonia, and undertook the siege of Thessalonica. Claudius

advanced to meet them, and gained at Naissus a complete victory, where

fifty thousand of the barbarians perished. A desultory war followed in

Thrace, Macedonia, and Moesia, which resulted in the destruction of the

Gothic fleet, and an immense booty in captives and cattle.

Claudius survived this great, but not decisive victory, but two

years, and was carried off by pestilence, at Sirmiun, A.D. 270; but not

until he had designated for his successor a still greater man--the

celebrated Aurelian, whose father had been a peasant. Every day of his

short reign was filled with wonders. He put an end to the Gothic war,

chastised the Germans who invaded Italy, recovered Gaul, Britain, and

Spain, defeated the Alemanni, who devastated the empire from the Po to the

Danube, destroyed the proud monarchy which Zenobia had built up in the

deserts of the East, took the queen captive, and carried her to Rome,

where he celebrated the most magnificent triumph which the world had seen

since the days of Pompey and Caesar. This celebrated woman, equaling

Cleopatra in beauty, and Boadicea in valor, and blending the popular

manners of the Roman princes with the stately pomp of Oriental kings, had

retired, on her defeat, to the beautiful city which Solomon had built,

shaded with palms, and ornamented with palaces. There, in that Tadmor of

the wilderness, Palmyra, the capital of her empire, which embraced a large

part of Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt, she had cultivated the learning of

the Greeks, and the Oriental tongues of the countries she ruled, excelling

equally in the chase and in war, the most truly accomplished woman of

antiquity,--sprung, like Cleopatra, from the Greek kings of Egypt. Among

her counselors was the celebrated Longinus--the most conspicuous ornament

of the last age of Greek classic literature, and a philosopher who taught

the wisdom of Plato. When Palmyra was taken by Aurelian, this great man,

who had stimulated Zenobia in her rebellion, was executed, without

uttering a word of complaint, together with the people of the city, with

remorseless barbarity, and the city of Solomon became an inconsiderable

Arab town. The queen, who had fled, was pursued and taken, and graced the

magnificent triumph of the martial emperor. The captive queen was made to

precede the triumphal chariot, on foot, loaded with fetters of gold, and

arrayed in the most gorgeous dress of her former empire. She was not

executed, but permitted to reside in the capital in the state of princes.

This great and brilliant triumph--one of the last glories of the

setting sun of Roman greatness--seemed to augur the restoration of the

empire. The emperor was sanguine, and boasted that all external danger had

passed away. But in a few months he was summoned to meet new enemies in

the East, and he was murdered by a conspiracy of his officers, probably in

revenge for the cruelties and massacres he had inflicted at Rome. In one

of his reforms a sedition arose, and was quelled inexorably by the

slaughter of seven thousand of the soldiers, besides a large number of the

leading nobles.

His sceptre descended to Tacitus, A.D. 275, a descendant of the

great historian: a man, says Niebuhr, "who was great in every thing that

could distinguish a senator; he possessed immense property, of which he

made a brilliant use; he was a man of unblemished character; he possessed

the knowledge of a statesman, and had, in his youth, shown great military

skill." Scarcely was he inaugurated as emperor before he marched against

the Alans, a Scythian tribe, who had ravaged Pontus, Cappadocia, Cilicia,

and Galatea. He, however, lost his life amid the hardships of his first

campaign, at the age of seventy-five, and after a brief reign of six


The veteran general, M. Aurelius Probus, the commander of the

Eastern provinces, was proclaimed emperor by the legions, although

originally of peasant rank. He was forty-five years of age, and united the

military greatness of Aurelian with political prudence, in all respects

the best choice which could have been made, and one of the best and

greatest of all the emperors. His six years of administration were marked

by uninterrupted successes, and he won a fame equal to that of the ancient

heroes. He restored peace and order in all the provinces; he broke the

power of the Sarmatians; he secured the alliance of the Goths; he drove

the Isaurians to their strongholds among their inaccessible mountains; he

chastised the rebellious cities of Egypt; he delivered Gaul from the

Germanic barbarians; he drove the Franks to their morasses at the mouth of

the Rhine; he vanquished the Burgundians who had wandered in quest of

booty from the banks of the Oder; he defeated the Lygii, a fierce tribe on

the borders of Silesia; he extended his victories to the Elbe, and erected

a wall, two hundred miles in length, from the Danube to the Rhine; so that

"there was not left," says Gibbon, "in all the provinces, a hostile

barbarian, or tyrant, or even a robber." After having destroyed four

hundred thousand of the barbarians, he returned to his capital to

celebrate a triumph, which equaled in splendor that of Aurelian. He, too,

fancied that all external enemies were subdued forever, and that Rome

should henceforth rejoice in eternal peace. But scarcely had the paeans of

victory been sung by a triumphant and infatuated people, when he was

assassinated in a mutiny of his own troops, whom he had compelled to labor

in draining the marshes around Sirmium, A.D. 282.

The soldiers, repenting the act as soon as it was done, conferred

the purple on the praetorian prefect, and notified the Senate of its

choice. And the choice was a good one; and the new emperor, Carus, at

sixty years of age, conferring the title of Caesar upon his two sons,

Carinus and Numerianus, whom he left to govern the West, hastened against

the Sarmatians, who had overrun Illyricum. Successful in his objects, he

advanced, in the depth of winter, through Thrace and Asia Minor to the

confines of Persia. The Persian king, wishing to avert the storm, sent his

ambassadors to the imperial camp, and found the emperor seated on the

grass, dining from peas and bacon, in all the simplicity of the early

successors of Mohammed. But before he could advance beyond the Tigris, his

tent was struck by lightning, and he was killed, on Christmas day, A.D.


Carinus and Numerian succeeded to the vacant throne. The former,

at Rome, disgraced his trust by indolence and shameless vices; while the

latter, in the camp, was unfit, though virtuous, to control the turbulent

soldiers, and was found murdered in his bed the very day that Carinus

celebrated the games with unusual magnificence.

The army raised C. Valerius Diocletianus to the vacant dignity,

and his first act was to execute the murderer of Numerian. His next was to

encounter Carinus in battle, who was slain, A.D. 285, and

Diocletian--perhaps the greatest emperor after Augustus--reigned alone.

Diocletian is, however, rendered infamous in ecclesiastical history, as

the most bitter of all the persecutors of the Christians, now a large and

growing body; but he was a man of the most distinguished abilities, though

of obscure birth, in a little Dalmatian town. He commenced his illustrious

reign at the age of thirty-nine, and reigned twenty years,--more as a

statesman than warrior,--politic, judicious, indefatigable in business, and

steady in his purposes.

This emperor inaugurated a new era, and a new policy of

government. The cares of State in a disordered age, when the empire was

threatened on every side by hostile barbarians, and disgraced by

insurrections and tumults, induced Diocletian to associate with himself

three colleagues, who had won fame in the wars of Aurelian and Carus.

Maximian, Galerius, and Constantine--one of whom had the dignity of

Augustus, and two that of Caesar.

Maximian, associated with Diocletian, with the rank of Augustus, had been

also an Illyrian peasant, and was assigned to the government of the

western provinces, while Diocletian retained that of the eastern. Maximum

established the seat of his government at Milan, giving a death-blow to

the Senate, which, though still mentioned honorably by name, was

henceforth severed from the imperial court. The empire had been ruled by

soldiers ever since pressing dangers had made it apparent that only men of

martial virtues could preserve it from the barbarians. But now the most

undisguised military rule, uninfluenced by old constitutional form, was

the only recognized authority, and the warlike emperors, bred in the camp,

had a disdain of the ancient capital, as well as great repugnance to the

enervated praetorian soldiers, who made and unmade emperors, whose

privileges were abolished forever. Milan was selected for the seat of

imperial government, from its proximity to the frontier, perpetually

menaced by the barbarians; and this city, before a mere military post, now

assumed the splendor of an imperial city, and was defended by a double


Diocletian made choice, at first, of Nicomedia, the old capital of

the Bithynian kings, as the seat of his Eastern government, equally

distant from the Danube and the Euphrates. He assumed the manner and state

of an Oriental monarch. He wore a diadem set with pearls, and a robe of

silk and gold instead of the simple toga with its purple stripe. His shoes

were studded with precious stones, and his court was marked by Oriental

ceremonials. His person was difficult of access, and the avenues to his

palace were guarded by various classes of officers. No one could approach

him without falling prostrate in adoration, and he was addressed as "My

lord the emperor." But he did not live in Oriental seclusion, and was

perpetually called away by pressing dangers.

The Caesars Galerius and Constantius were sent to govern the

provinces on the frontiers; the former, from his capital, Sirmium, in

Illyricum, watched the whole frontier of the Danube; the latter spent his

time in Britain. Galerius was adopted by Diocletian, and received his

daughter Valeria in marriage; while Constantius was adopted by Maximian,

and married his daughter Theodora.

The division of the empire under these four princes nearly corresponded

with the prefectures which Constantine subsequently established, and which

were deemed necessary to preserve the empire from dissolution--a

dissolution inevitable, had it not been for the great emperors whom the

necessities of the empire had raised up, but whose ruin was only for a

time averted. Not even able generals and good emperors could save the

corrupted empire. It was doomed. Vice had prepared the way for violence.

The four emperors, who now labored to prevent a catastrophe, were engaged

in perpetual conflicts, and through their united efforts peace was

restored throughout the empire, and the last triumph that Rome ever saw

was celebrated by them.

Only one more enemy, to the eye of Diocletian, remained to be

subdued, and this was Christianity. But this enemy was unconquerable.

Silently, surely, without pomp, and without art, the new religion had made

its way, against all opposition, prejudice, and hatred, from Jews and

pagans alike, and was now a power in the empire. The followers of the

hated sect were, however, from the humble classes, and but few great men

had arisen among them, and even these were unimportant to the view of

philosophers and rulers. The believers formed an esoteric circle, and were

lofty, stern, and hostile to all the existing institutions of society.

They formed an imperium in imperio, but did not aim, at this time, to

reach political power. They were scattered throughout the great cities of

the empire, and were ruled by their bishops and ministers. They did not

make war on men, but on their ideas and habits and customs. They avoided

all external conflicts, and contended with devils and passions. But

government distrusted and disliked them, and sought at different times to

exterminate them. There had already been nine signal persecutions from the

time of Nero, and yet they had constantly increased in numbers and

influence. But now a more serious attack was to be made upon them by the

emperors, provoked, probably, by the refusal of some Christians to take

the military oath, and serve in the armies, on conscientious principles:

but interpreted by those in authority as disloyalty in a great national

crisis. The mind of the emperor was alienated; and both Galerius and

Diocletian resolved that a religion which seemed hostile to the political

relations of the empire, should be suppressed. A decree was issued to

destroy all the Christian churches, to confiscate their property, to burn

the sacred writings, to deprive Christians of their civil rights, and even

to doom them to death. The decree which was publicly exhibited in

Nicomedia, was torn down by a Christian, who expressed the bitterest

detestation of the tyrannical governors. The fires which broke out in the

palace were ascribed to the Christians, and the command was finally issued

to imprison all the ministers of religion, and punish those who protected

them. A persecution which has had no parallel in history, was extended to

all parts of the empire. The whole civil power, goaded by the old priests

of paganism, was employed in searching out victims, and all classes of

Christians were virtually tormented and murdered. The earth groaned for

ten years under the sad calamity, and there was apparently no hope. But

whether scourged, or lacerated, or imprisoned, or burned, the martyrs

showed patience, faith, and moral heroism, and invoked death to show its

sting, and the grave its victory.

The persecution of the Christians--this attempt to suppress

religion thought to be hostile to the imperial authority, and not without

some plausibility, since many Christians refused to be enrolled in the

armies, and suffered death sooner than enlist--was the last great act of

Diocletian. Whether wearied with the cares of State, or disgusted with his

duties, or ill, or craving rest and repose, he took the extraordinary

resolution of abdicating his throne, at the very summit of his power, and

at the age of fifty-nine. He influenced Maximian to do the same, and the

two Augusti gave place to the two Caesars. The double act of resignation

was performed at Nicomedia and Milan, on the same day, May 1, A.D. 305.

Diocletian took a graceful farewell of his soldiers, and withdrew to a

retreat near his native city of Salonae, on the coast of the Adriatic. He

withdrew to a magnificent palace, which he had built on a square of six

hundred feet, in a lovely and fertile spot, in sight of the sea, and the

mountains, and luxurious plains. He there devoted himself to the pleasures

of agriculture, and planted cabbages with his own hand, and refused all

solicitations to resume his power. But his repose was alloyed by the sight

of increasing troubles, and the failure of the system he had inaugurated.

If the empire could not be governed by one master, it could not be

governed by four, with their different policies and rivalries. He lived

but nine years in retirement; but long enough to see his religious policy

reversed, by the edict of Milan, which confirmed the Christian religion,

and the whole imperial fabric which he had framed reversed by Constantine.

Confusion followed his abdication. Civil wars instead of barbaric

wasted the empire. The ancient heart of the empire had no longer the

presence of an Augustus, and a new partition virtually took place, by

which Italy and Africa became dependencies of the East. Galerius--now

Augustus--assumed the right to nominate the two new Caesars, one of whom was

his sister's son, who assumed the name of Galerius Valerius Maximinus, to

whom were assigned Syria and Egypt, and the other was his faithful

servant, Severus, who was placed over Italy and Africa. According to the

forms of the constitution, he was subordinate to Constantius, but he was

devoted to Galerius. The emperor Constantius, then in Boulogne, was dying,

and his son, Constantine, was at the court of Galerius. Though summoned to

the bedside of his father, Galerius sought to retain him, but Constantine

abruptly left Nicomedia, evaded Severus, traversed Europe, and reached his

father, who was just setting out for Britain, to repel an invasion of the

Caledonians. He reached York only to die, A.D. 306, and with his last

breath transmitted his empire to his son, and commended him to the

soldiers. Galerius was transported with rage, but was compelled to submit,

and named Constantine Caesar over the western provinces, who was not

elevated to the dignity of Augustus till two years later.

The elevation of Severus to supreme power in Italy by Galerius, filled the

abdicated emperor Maximian with indignation, and humiliated the Roman

people. The praetorians rose against the party of Severus, who retired to

Ravenna, and soon after committed suicide. The Senate assumed their old

prerogative, and conferred the purple on Maxentius, the son of Maximilian.

Galerius again assumed the power of nominating an Augustus, and bestowed

the purple, made vacant by the death of Severus, on an old comrade,

Licinius, originally a Dacian peasant.

Thus, there were six emperors at a time; Constantine, in Britain;

Maximian, who resumed the purple; Maxentius, his son; Licinius Galerius,

in the East; and Maximin, his nephew. Maximian crossed the Alps in person,

won over Constantine to his party, and gave him his daughter, Fausta, in

marriage, and conferred upon him the rank of Augustus; so, in the West,

Maxentius and Constantine affected to be subordinate to Maximian; while,

in the East, Licinius and Maximin obeyed the orders of their benefactor,

Galerius. The sovereigns of the East and West were hostile to each other,

but their mutual fears produced an apparent tranquillity, and a feigned


The first actual warfare, however, broke out between Maximian and

his son. Maxentius insisted on the renewed abdication of his father, and

had the support of the praetorian guards. Driven into exile, he returned to

Gaul, and took refuge with his son and daughter, who received him kindly;

but in the absence of Constantine, he seized the treasure to bribe his

troops, and was holding communication with Maxentius when Constantine

returned from the Rhine. The old intriguer had only time to throw himself

into Marseilles, where he strangled himself, when the city was hard

pressed by Constantine, A.D. 310.

In a year after, Galerius died, like Herod Agrippa, a prey to

loathsome vermin--morbus pediculosus, and his dominions were divided

between Maximin and Licinius, each of whom formed secret alliances with

Maxentius and Constantine, between whom was war.

The tyranny of Maxentius led his subjects to look to Constantine

as a deliverer, who marched to the relief of the Senate and Roman people.

He crossed the Alps with forty thousand men. Maxentius collected a force

of one hundred and seventy thousand, to maintain which he had the wealth

of Italy, Africa, and Sicily. Constantine first encountered the

lieutenants of Maxentius in the plains of Turin, and gained a complete

victory, the prize of which was Milan, the new capital of Italy. He was

advancing to Rome on the Flaminian way, before Maxentius was aroused to

his danger, being absorbed in pleasures. A few miles from Rome was fought

the battle of Saxa Rubra, A.D. 312, between the rival emperors, at which

Maxentius perished, and Constantine was greeted by the Senate as the first

of the three surviving Augusti. The victory of Constantine was

commemorated by a triumphal arch, which still remains, and which was only

a copy of the arch of Trajan. The ensuing winter was spent in Rome, during

which Constantine abolished forever the praetorian guards, which had given

so many emperors to the world. In the spring Constantine gave his daughter

Constantia in marriage to Licinius, but was soon called away to the Rhine

by an irruption of Franks, while Licinius marched against Maximin, and

defeated him under the walls of Heracles. Maximin retreated to Nicomedia,

and was about to renew the war, when he died at Tarsus, and Licinius

became master of the Eastern provinces.

There were now but two emperors, one in the East, and the other in

the West. Constantine celebrated the restoration of tranquillity by

promulgating at Milan an edict in favor of universal religious toleration,

and the persecution of the Christians by the pagans was ended forever, in

Europe. About this time Constantine himself was converted to the new

religion. In his march against Maxentius, it is declared by Eusebius, that

he saw at noonday a cross in the heavens, inscribed with the words, "By

this conquer." It is also asserted that the vision of the cross was seen

by the whole army, and the cross henceforth became the standard of the

Christian emperors. It was called the Labarum, and is still seen on the

coins of Constantine, and was intrusted to a chosen guard of fifty men. It

undoubtedly excited enthusiasm in the army, now inclined to accept the new

faith, and Constantine himself joined the progressive party, and made

Christianity the established religion of the empire. Henceforth the

protection of the Christian religion became one of the cherished objects

of his soul, and although his life was stained by superstitions and many

acts of cruelty and wickedness, Constantine stands out in history as the

first Christian emperor. For this chiefly he is famous, and a favorite

with ecclesiastical writers. The edict of Milan is an era in the world's

progress. But he was also a great sovereign, and a great general.

The harmony between so ambitious a man and Licinius was not of

long duration. Rival interests and different sympathies soon led to the

breaking out of hostilities, and Licinius was defeated in two great

battles, and resigned to Constantine all his European possessions, except

Thrace. The nine successive years were spent by Licinius in slothful and

vicious pleasures, while Constantine devoted his energies to the

suppression of barbarians, and the enactment of important laws. He

repulsed the Gothic and Sarmatian hordes, who had again crossed the

Danube, and pursued them into Dacia; nor did the Goths secure peace until

they had furnished forty thousand recruits to the Roman armies. This

recruiting of the imperial armies from the barbarians was one of the most

melancholy signs of decaying strength, and indicated approaching ruin.

In the year 323 a new civil war broke out between Constantine and

Licinius. The aged and slothful Eastern emperor roused himself to a grand

effort and marshalled an army of one hundred and fifty thousand foot and

fifteen thousand horse on the plains of Hadrianople, while his fleet of

three hundred and fifty triremes commanded the Hellespont. Constantine

collected an army of one hundred and twenty thousand men at Thessalonica,

and advanced to attack his foe, intrenched in a strong position. The

battle was decided in favor of Constantine, who slew thirty-four thousand

of his enemies, and took the fortified camp of Licinius, who fled to

Byzantium, July, A.D. 323.

The fleet of Licinius still remained, and with his superior naval

force he might have baffled his rival. But fortune, or valor, again

decided in favor of the Western emperor, and after a fight of two days the

admiral of Licinius retired to Byzantium. The siege of this city was now

pressed with valor by Constantine, and Licinius fled with his treasures to

Chalcedon, and succeeded in raising another army of fifty thousand men.

These raw levies were, however, powerless against the veterans of

Constantine, whom he led in person. The decisive battle was fought at

Chrysopolis, and Licinius retired to Nicomedia, but soon after abdicated,

and was banished to Thessalonica. There he was not long permitted to

remain, being executed by order of Constantine, one of the foul blots on

his memory and character.

The empire was now reunited under a single man, at the cost of

vast treasures and lives. The policy of Diocletian had only inaugurated

civil war. There is no empire so vast which can not be more easily

governed by one man than by two or four. It may be well for empires to be

subdivided, like that of Charlemagne, but it is impossible to prevent

civil wars when the power is shared equally by jealous rivals. It was

better for the Roman world to be united under Octavius, than divided

between him and Antony.

On the fall of Byzantium, Constantine was so struck with its

natural advantages, that he resolved to make it the capital of the empire.

Placed on the inner of two straits which connect the Euxine and the AEgean

with the Mediterranean, on the frontiers of both Europe and Asia, it

seemed to be the true centre of political power, while its position could

be itself rendered impregnable against any external enemy that threatened

the Roman world. The wisdom of the choice of Constantine, and his

unrivaled sagacity, were proved by the fact, that while Rome was

successively taken and sacked by Goths and Vandals, Constantinople

remained the capital of the eastern Roman empire for eleven continuous


The reign of Constantine as sole emperor was marked by another

event, A.D. 325. which had a great influence on the subsequent condition

of the world in a moral and religious point of view, and this was the

famous Council of Nicaea, which assembled to settle points of faith and

discipline in the new religion which was now established throughout the

empire. It is called the first Ecumenical, or General Council, and was

attended by three hundred and eighteen bishops, with double the number of

presbyters, assembled from all parts of the Christian world. Here the

church and the empire met face to face. In this council the emperor left

the cares of State, and the command of armies, to preside over discussions

on the doctrine of the Trinity, as expounded by two great rival

parties,--one headed by Athanasius, then archdeacon, afterward archbishop

of Alexandria--the greatest theologian that had as yet appeared in the

church,--and the other by Arius, a simple presbyter of Alexandria, but a

man of subtle and commanding intellect. Arius maintained that the Son, the

second person of the Trinity, derived his being from the Father within the

limits of time, and was secondary to him in power and glory. Athanasius

maintained that the Son was co-eternal with the Father, and the same in

substance with the Father. This theological question had long been

discussed, and the church was divided between the two parties, each of

which exhibited extreme acrimony. Constantine leaned to the orthodox side,

although his most influential adviser, Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, the

historian, inclined to the Arian view. But the emperor was more desirous

to secure peace and unity, than the ascendency of any dogma, and the

doctrine of Athanasius became the standard of faith, and has since

remained the creed of the church.

After the settlement of the faith of the church, now becoming the

great power of the world, the reign of Constantine was disgraced by a

domestic tragedy seldom paralleled in history. His son, Crispus, by a

low-born woman, conspicuous for talents and virtues, either inflamed the

jealousy of his father, or provoked him by a secret conspiracy. It has

never been satisfactorily settled whether he was a rival or a conspirator,

but he was accused, tried, and put to death, in the twentieth year of the

reign, while Constantine was celebrating at Rome the festival of his

vicennalia. After this bloody tragedy, for which he is generally

reproached, he took his final departure from Rome, and four years after,

the old capital was degraded to the rank of a secondary city, and

Constantinople was dedicated as the new capitol of the empire. From the

eastern promontory to the Golden Horn, the extreme length of

Constantinople was three Roman miles, and the circumference measured ten,

inclosing an area of two thousand acres, besides the suburbs. The new city

was divided into fourteen wards, and was ornamented with palaces, fora,

and churches. The church of St. Sophia was built on the site of an old

temple, and was in the form of a Greek cross, surmounted by a beautiful

and lofty dome. In a century afterward, Constantinople rivaled Rome in

magnificence. It had a capitol, a circus, two theatres, eight public

baths, fifty-two porticoes, eight aqueducts, four halls, and fourteen

churches, and four thousand three hundred and eighty-three large palatial


After the building of this new and beautiful city, Constantine

devoted himself to the internal regulation of the empire, which he divided

into four prefectures, subdivided into thirteen dioceses, each governed by

vicars or vice-prefects, who were styled counts and dukes. The provinces

were subdivided to the number of one hundred and sixteen. Three of these

were governed by proconsuls, thirty-seven by consuls, five by correctors,

and seventy-one by presidents, chosen from the legal profession, and

called clarissimi. The prefecture of the East embraced the Asiatic

provinces, together with Egypt, Thrace, and the lower Moesia; that of

Illyricum contained the countries between the Danube, the AEgean, and the

Adriatic; that of Italy extended over the Alps to the Danube; and that of

the Gauls embraced the western provinces beyond the Rhine and the Alps.

The military power was separated from the civil. There were two

master-generals, one of infantry, and the other of cavalry, afterward

increased to eight, under whom were thirty-five commanders, ten of whom

were counts, and twenty dukes. The legions were reduced from six thousand

to fifteen hundred men. Their number was one hundred and thirty-two, and

the complete force of the empire was six hundred and forty-five thousand,

holding five hundred and eighty-three permanent stations.

The ministers of the palace, who exercised different functions

about the presence of the emperor, were seven in number: the prefect of

the bed-chamber; a eunuch, who waited on the emperor; the master of

offices--the supreme magistrate of the palace; the quaestor--at the head of

the judicial administration, and who composed the orations and edicts of

the emperor; the treasurer, and two counts of domestics, who commanded the


The bishopric nearly corresponded with the civil divisions of the

empire, and the bishops had different ranks. We now observe archbishops

and metropolitans.

The new divisions complicated the machinery of government, and led to the

institution of many new offices, which greatly added to the expense of

government, for which taxation became more rigorous and oppressive. The

old constitution was completely subverted, and the emperor became an

Oriental monarch.

Constantine was called away from his labors of organization to

resist the ambition of Sapor II., when he died, at the age of sixty-four,

at his palace near Nicomedia, A.D. 337, after a memorable but tumultuous

reign--memorable for the recognition of Christianity as a State religion;

tumultuous, from civil wars and contests with barbarians. Constantinople,

not Rome, became the future capital of the empire.