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Prosperity and Decline: before the Christian emperors

Between the years 96 and 180, Rome had able emperors – good men choosing other good men as their heirs. Under the good emperors the empire prospered economically – benefitting from a lack of customs barriers, improved roads and not much interference in business. Trade flourished for the empire's agricultural, its crafted goods, metal working and glass blowing industry. What today is Western Germany became the workshop of Europe, while farther east in the empire people were exercising their age-old skills in technology and trade, with Greek traders becoming the wealthiest in the empire.

Race appears to have had nothing to do with this success. The racial purity that Augustus Caesar sought to protect was nonsense. By around the year 140 the aristocracy that was supposed to have made Rome great had disappeared, along with their myth of blood purity – diminished with marriage between aristocrats and non-aristocrats and out of wedlock. The common Roman, meanwhile, could not with honesty claim to be purely Roman. About four-fifths of Rome's plebeians carried some genes of former slaves.

The good times, moreover, were destined to end. The last of the so-called good emperors was Marcus Aurelius (reigned from 161 to 180), and he faced a new series of challenges – old challenges really for what was already a history of empire. This was invasion. The bigger the empire the more likely or frequent the incursions. Aurelius's reign began with war against the Parthians (from Iran), who were expanding into Syria, and then in the year 163 into Armenia, both areas by now within the Roman Empire. Then came invasions by Germans into Gaul and southward into the empire across the Danube River. Aurelius did his duty and led a defense of the empire against these incursions.

Aurelius is described by historians as having been a student of philosophy – a Stoic. In addition to leading armies and being an absolute ruler, he wrote books. He wanted to do right for the empire and to improve the world. He believed in duty and restraint. He would make false the generalizations that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." If he is to be described as corrupt, that corruption was his belief in the Roman Empire.

Failing to see social betterment, he found fault with common people for not being as committed to righteousness as he. Then he contributed to the decline by passing rule to his son Commodus.

Commodus was not the self-denying soldier or able administrator that his father had been. He managed governmental affairs poorly, including selling government offices to the highest bidder. Like Nero he tried to win popularity through public performances: he entered the arena, stabbing or clubbing to death animals to the applause of the crowd. He allowed his Guard in Rome and soldiers elsewhere to be abusive toward civilians. Concerned about opposition from his military governors, he had their children cared for under his custody – in effect hostages. He elevated himself with titles, posturing as the fountainhead of Roman life and religion. He went down the same path as Caligula. He had a list enemies he planned to execute, but those afraid of him got to him first. He was assassinated in the year 192 – twelve years after having succeeded his father.

With Commodus the series of good emperors ended. In the coming 93 years there would be 30 emperors, mostly military men. Only three, or maybe four, died from natural causes. Most of the others were assassinated by soldiers. A few died in battle. A lot can happen in 93 years, and did. Political chaos developed, accompanied by a decline in respect for authority. Armies on the move within the empire plundered towns and farms. Military emperors sent tax collectors about the empire to collect wealth from people. Taxation imposed by emperors encouraged men of commerce to hoard their money rather than invest. To pay their soldiers, emperors debased Rome's currency. Prices skyrocketed. The empire's middle class went bankrupt, and roads deteriorated.

More people had become beggars. Groups of desperate peasants revolted, but their uprisings were not coordinated and not widespread enough to overthrow centralized authority. Bands of desperate people wandered the countryside, surviving by theft. Piracy grew on the Aegean Sea, and tribal people from the Sahara attacked Roman cities along the coast of North Africa.

Disorders sometimes cut off trade routes. By 250, Rome's trade with China and India had ended. Agricultural lands in the empire were going unused. With the declining economy, people moved from cities and towns to rural areas in search of food. Cities began shrinking to a fraction of their former size, some to be occupied only by administrators. Agricultural estates that felt threatened by barbarians or Roman soldiers protected themselves by building fortifications, and their neighbors surrendered their holdings to them, the estates expanding by offering them protection – the beginning of what rural relationships that would continue into the Middle Ages.

The governance associated with Rome's gods, put in place by Augustus as an alternative to democracy and chaos, had failed. Alongside that failure and disrespect for authority, people were joining alternative communities of sharing and hope: Christianity.

In 284 an army declared Diocletian emperor. He was to rule with an iron first for 20 years and 5 months. He restored Roman control in Britannia. He issued government directives in an effort to restore the economy. He created a budget. He fixed prices on thousands of commodities, but violations were so widespread that his government stopped trying to enforce them. Owners of estates responded to an increase in taxes by producing less, isolating themselves as economic entities. Diocletian thought the empire was too big to be administrated by one ruler, so he divided it in two, creating a co-emperor to rule in the eastern half.

He outlawed astrologers. He ordered death for the followers of Manichaeanism, which he saw as a Persian religion. He moved against Christianity, but by now was too big. Christians in the eastern half of the empire had increased to something like 20 percent of the population. North Africa had become largely Christian. In the empire as a whole, Christians were about ten percent of the population, their number having doubled in about fifty years.

The purging of Christians continued intermittently to the year 305, when Diocletian retired because of ill-heath. In 306 the co-emperor Constantius died, and his troops proclaimed his son as his successor. The son, to be known as Constantine the Great, was to fight a war to win control over the western half of the empire, and eventually to fight again and win control over the eastern half, and to have a city built that would be called Constantinople. Constantine was the first emperor to support Christianity and eventually, it is believed, to convert. The Roman Empire was now to be ruled by emperors of the Christian faith – except for Julian the Apostate.

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Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.