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Imperial Rome to Fall of Western Empire. (27 b.c.-a.d. 476). page 3


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We are here, however, somewhat anticipating the great change of system which began with Diocletian, proclaimed emperor by the troops in 284. Prior to dealing with this matter, we must see how the great transforming spiritual force, the transcendent power of Christianity, had been exerting its influence on the Roman world. The peace established by Rome on the Mediterranean shores, around which all the olden civilisation was gathered, had greatly promoted commerce and free intercourse. The imperial sway of Rome had spread abroad the Greek culture, and was preserving for modern times, through multiplication of copies, the unrivalled Greek literature. The Greek philosophy so widely known after the time of Alexander the Great had long been preparing men of education to receive still nobler lessons, and among the masses, severely tried by the calamities already related, there was a readiness to turn for relief to a faith which promised redress of grievances in a future state. A religion suited to the needs of mankind had long been preached and taught by men who, owing to the Roman supremacy, had free access to divers regions from which missionaries must have been excluded under other conditions. The seed, sown quietly, had been growing in many quarters; the leaven had been working in the vast pagan lump. The rulers of the empire found that in the east and west, and north and south, thousands of orderly societies had come into existence, professing the same principles, and having the same polity and discipline. Throughout the provinces, men whose thoughts were wholly bent upon this world and its affairs found themselves in the midst of others who were devoted to the service of, bound to obey, another ruler than the emperor. The new people would in no way, by attendance at the pagan worship, or at the public games which recognised the old deities, give the least sanction to former beliefs. Family ties, the nearest and dearest relationships, were disregarded in comparison with submission to the demands of the faith, and death was welcomed rather than denial. Bishops appeared as rivals, it was supposed, of imperial power, and hence came persecution from good men who thought that the new "superstition" was, in its essence, disloyal to the powers that be. Persecution only scattered the seeds more widely, made the organisation firmer, and gave the new religion martyr-heroes and a history. The closeness of alliance, the unity of doctrine, the clearness and boldness of its enunciation, which marked the votaries of the religion, made a great impression on thoughtful minds, and in less than three centuries from the death of its founder Christianity gained the official approval of the highest authority in the empire.

Diocletian (284-305), a man who rose to supreme power by his own abilities, sought a way of escape from the perils which had menaced and overwhelmed former rulers, in a division of the imperial power, for administrative purposes, among four persons. The frontiers would be made safer, and the emperor would be guarded against attacks of the troops. A co-emperor and two viceroys called "Caesars" shared the direction of affairs with himself. The empire was thus ruled from four centres: Gaul, Britain, and Spain from Trier (Treves) on the Moselle; Thrace, Egypt, and Asia, by Diocletian, from Nicomedia in Bithynia (Asia Minor); Italy and Africa, from Mediolanum (Milan); and Illyricum, Macedonia, and Greece, from Sirmium, the capital of Pannonia, the modern Mitrovitz, on the left bank of the Save. Rebellions and barbarian invasions were thus stayed, and the soldiers were kept at work building walls and castles, and forming fortified camps on all the dangerous frontiers. It is obvious that the new plan could only succeed while the four rulers were competent men and all worked together. Rome thus ceased to be the only capital of the empire. The emperors were never in residence there, and the differences between Rome and the provinces had passed away now that the imperial rulers had ceased to claim authority merely as being chief officials of the city of Rome and commanders of the armies. The last and the most severe and persistent persecution of Christianity began in 303 under Diocletian, two years prior to his abdication, caused by the failure of his health after 21 years of toil in state-affairs. This trial of the faith continued for about seven years. A decree issued from Nicomedia ordered the churches to be levelled with the ground, and the sacred books to be given up, under pain of death, to the imperial officers, and publicly burnt. All property of the churches was confiscated, and all public assemblies for Christian worship were prohibited. The Christians of rank and distinction were degraded from their offices, and declared incapable of holding any post of authority or trust. The right of Roman citizenship was taken from all those of the plebeian order, so that they became liable to corporal punishment or torture. Slaves who were Christians could not claim or obtain freedom. The whole body of Christians became outlaws, without protection in case of wrong, but liable to civil actions, bound to bear all the burdens of the state, and amenable to all its penalties. Many died by beheading, burning alive, and drowning. Nearly all over the civilised world, Christianity was assailed by the full force of the civil power, urged on by the united influence of the pagan priesthood and the philosophic party. All was in vain. The non-Christian lovers of freedom had their sympathies aroused, and patience under tribulation excited admiration which in countless instances ended in conversion to the faith.

The retirement of Diocletian was followed by civil wars, and during this period Constantinus (Constantine the Great) came to the front. He was born in 274, son of one of the co-emperors, Constantius, who had discouraged the persecution of the Christians, and of Helena, a Christian lady. Distinguished as a soldier, and very popular with the troops, he first assumed rule at Eboracum (York) on his father's death in 306. He defeated Maxentius, chosen an emperor by the Prsetorians, in a great battle near Rome in 312, and then entered the city, disbanded the PrEetorians and destroyed their quarters. He was, in his religious creed and conduct, a strange compound of paganism and Christianity; he was an able statesman who made an important change in the mode of government by dividing the civil and military authority, thus lessening the danger of revolt by lowering the power of the legati, or provincial governors. In 313 he issued an edict at Milan, giving civil rights and toleration to Christians throughout the empire. The laws were well administered, the frontiers strengthened, and the barbarians chastised. Becoming Sole ruler in 323, he fully recognised Christianity and favoured it against paganism, and in 325 under his control, the first General Council of the Church was held at Nioea, in Bithynia, where the heresy of Aims, who denied the divinity of Christ, was condemned. Among other changes of importance effected by Constantine, the empire was. redivided into four great prefectures or governments - the East, the Danubian provinces and Greece, Italy, and Gaul, including 13 dioceses or districts and 116 provinces. A great body of officials, solely appointed and removed by the emperor, came into existence, forming a new official nobility all dependent upon the supreme ruler. Above all, he made an end of the old ideas attaching to Rome, as being the place where imperial authority resided, by choosing a new capital, where a new Senate of his nominees would be subservient to the emperor. The place chosen for this purpose, the new "Rome," was Byzantium, a place of importance already seen in these pages, held in succession by its early Megarian colonists, the Persians, the Athenians, Lacedaemonians (Spartans), Macedonians, and finally the Romans. There a new splendid city was solemnly founded as Nova Roma (New Rome), afterwards called Constantinopolis (City of Constantine), known to all the world as " Constantinople." The festival of dedication took place in a.d. 330, and as the city was amidst a Greek-speaking population, the empire of which it became the capital, after the downfall of the Western Empire, is known as the "Greek" or "Byzantine." On Constantine's death, the empire was divided among his three sons, and came in 353 into the sole possession of the survivor, Constantius, who was succeeded in 361 by Julian, a member of the family. This emperor, surnamed " the Apostate," as a deserter from the Christian faith, was a man of great ability and culture, trained at Athens in Greek literature and philosophy, and a commander who had successfully fought in Gaul against the invading Franks and Alemanni. He vainly strove to bring back paganism, excluding Christians from public offices, and making them rebuild heathen temples which they had destroyed. This extraordinary man was virtuous in life; just, wise, and active as a ruler; a strange and sad example of great powers misapplied, high aims wasted, and noble views distorted. He died in 363 of a wound received in a campaign against the Persians. We have now reached the point where we must deal with the barbarian invaders who began to overwhelm the Western Empire. In the middle of the 4th century a.d. the chief Germanic tribes were the Vandals, in Pannonia (south-western Hungary); the Suevi, in the territory now forming Moravia, Bohemia and Bavaria; the Burgundians, on the Neckar and the Rhine; the Alemanni, between the Main and the Alps, along the Rhine; the Franks, on the Lower Rhine; the Saxons between the Elbe and the Rhine; the Lango-bards, on the Lower Elbe; the East Goths, in what is now southern Russia; and the West Goths, in Dacia (eastern Hungary and Roumania). These Teutonic peoples, now massed in a smaller number of larger tribes than before, had grown in numbers and power, and were better trained both in war and in political arts through connection with Roman civilisation. We have seen that the provincial armies were largely German, and German officers had acquired high position in the imperial service. At this time movements among the dwellers on the great plain of northern Asia were taking place, and these caused the invasion of eastern Europe by a fierce Tartar people called the Huns, of dwarfish figure, great strength, and ugly beardless faces, made more hideous by tattooing. The Goths were the first to feel the pressure. This remarkable body of Germanic or Teutonic people had for three centuries, up to about a.d. 380, a history of mere barbarian slaughter and pillage. A century later, they became the most powerful nation in Europe, with a sovereign of their race ruling in Italy, on the throne of the Cssars, with remarkable wisdom and benefit to his subjects, while another Gothic ruler held sway in Spain and southern Gaul. 250 years more pass away, and the Gothic kingdoms and nation have utterly disappeared. The meaning of their name is a matter of dispute; it may be "the nobly born." Their language greatly resembled the oldest English. Early in the 3rd century, we find this people dividing into two great branches, the Visigoths or West Goths, and the Ostrogoths or East Goths, then referring to their positions east and west of the river Dniester. As things came to pass, the distinction remained appropriate through the conquest of the western countries, Gaul and Spain, by the Visigoths, and of Italy by the Ostrogoths. In person they were tall and strong, with fair complexions, blue eyes, and yellow hair, much resembling the modern Swedes. In character they were brave, generous, hardy, pure and loving in domestic life. Liable to cruelty in the first excitement of conquest, they were, notably after their conversion, just and humane towards those whom they subjugated. We have already seen them in conflict with Roman armies, and they had compelled a Roman emperor, Callus, to pay them a large yearly tribute on condition of leaving Roman territory at peace.

The later invasions of the Goths ravaged Asia Minor, where they burnt the magnificent temple of Diana at Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, rich in marble columns and in some of the best statuary of Grecian art. Thence they crossed the AEgean and plundered Athens, sparing the noble buildings, and, at the suggestion of an aged chief, the libraries, since, as he said, "men who spent their time on such idle toys as books would give the Goths no trouble in war." While they were still heathens, the Goths were prevented from a premature conquest of the empire by the vigorous warfare of Roman generals and by the wise policy, as we have seen, of the emperor Aurelian. Settled in Dacia, they acquired much new civilisation, and were allies of Rome for half a century. These were the Visigoths, while their kinsmen, the Ostrogoths, were living, also peacefully towards Rome, on the territory north of the modern Crimea. The united peoples were thrice defeated, along with Slavonic allies from the East, by Constantine in 322, and eight years later, assisting the Vandals, whom the Goths had attacked, he forced them to beg for peace and alliance. A powerful Ostrogothic kingdom, about a.d. 375, was subdued by the Huns, to whom the Ostrogoths remained subject for a century, and fought against their kinsmen the Visigoths. A large number of the latter were converted to Christianity in the middle of the 4th century by their countryman Wulfila or Ulphilas, who had learnt to speak and write both Greek and Latin at Constantinople (Byzantium), and, becoming a priest and missionary, spent seven years preaching the gospel in Dacia. When fierce persecution arose, he crossed the Danube with many thousands of his converts, by permission of the emperor Constantius, and settled in Mcesia, at the foot of the Balkans. A few years later, towards the end of the 4th century, both Visigoths and Ostrogoths were professed Christians. Wulfila's translation of the Bible into Gothic, of which a large portion of the Gospels and of St. Paul's Epistles remains, was a wonderful performance for that age, and is one of the most important of linguistic treasures. The best manuscript, out of six that have been discovered, is beautifully written in letters of gold and silver on purple parchment, and, bound in solid silver, is preserved at the University of Upsala in Sweden. Such were the people who took the most prominent part in the disruption of the western Roman Empire.

The emperor Valentinian I. (364-375) warred with success against the Alemanni and drove them out of Gaul. Valens (364-378), ruling the eastern part of the empire, came into conflict with the Goths south of the Danube, and was defeated and slain in the great battle of Adrianople. The victors moved westwards to the Adriatic and the borders of Italy, thus occupying another large section of the Roman territory. His successor Theodosius (379-395), ruling the Eastern Empire only until 392, fought the Visigoths with some success, and accepted them as allies in Moesia and Thrace. It was in the person of this emperor that the rising power of the Church was strikingly shown. A Spaniard by birth, the last emperor who ruled over the whole undivided empire, he had cruelly punished, by the execution or massacre of several thousand persons, an outbreak at Thessalonica, in Macedonia. On his return some months later to his capital, Milan, Theodosius was met at the church-door by Ambrosius the bishop, and excluded from communion until he had confessed his crime and done public penance. A formal end of paganism was made by decrees which forbade the worship of the heathen gods, under severe penalties.

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Map. Te Roman Empire, A.D.119.
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