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Late Roman Empire

In 235 AD, the Severan dynasty came to an end. Over the half-century that followed, more than twenty rulers came to power in the ensuing struggle for control. The period of turmoil ended with the rise of Diocletian. His 21-year reign (284-305) was of great importance for life in the Roman Empire. He abandoned the old republican offices - princeps, consul, and people's tribune. Relying on his loyal army, Diocletian declared himself the lord of all the inhabitants of the empire. The emperor's power over all communities, even over proud Rome, became unlimited. The era of the late empire began.

The Roman Empire before the crisis of the 3rd century AD

The Roman Empire before the 3rd-century crisis AD

Transition from slave-owning system to feudal relations The third century was a turning point in the history of the ancient Mediterranean. This century was filled with the struggle between two tendencies - the dying slave-owning system and the emerging feudal system. The clash of these tendencies created a whirlwind that engulfed all spheres of social life - economy, social relations, state structure, culture. At the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries, the feudal tendency prevailed, and the development of the Roman state entered the stage of the decay of the slave-owning system and the emergence of feudal relations.

From the 3rd century, large autarkic, i.e., self-sufficient estates that provided themselves with everything necessary, were strengthened. Thanks to the development of their own crafts in addition to agriculture, they were independent of the city market. Hence, the decline of urban crafts and trade. Commodity-money relations are reduced, there is an acute shortage of money. The state continues to demand taxes in monetary form from its subjects, but their payment becomes difficult. The treasury tries to compensate for the tax shortfall by issuing substandard coins, which further undermines the economy. Full-value coins disappear from circulation, settling as dead treasures in the hands of the rich. The devaluation of the coinage contributes to the rise in prices, especially for food. Penalties for tax arrears are tightened. Indebted coloni flee from their plots (usually from the ruined small estates of urban landowners to the larger and economically more stable estates of magnates, independent of cities). The struggle of peasants, coloni, and slaves against oppressors intensifies, sometimes resulting in armed uprisings. Provincial nobility attempted to break away from Rome. There was a frequent change of emperors, who were raised and overthrown by the army. In the 3rd century, Rome's foreign policy situation changed: the balance of power between it and the barbarian periphery, characteristic of the previous century, ended, and the neighboring tribes began to advance on the empire. On the eastern borders of the Roman Empire, its confrontation with another world empire - the Sassanid state - required enormous tension of forces. In the 3rd century, the decline of ancient culture became apparent; Christianity, which denied all the spiritual values of the ancient world, became widespread.

The main reason for the crisis of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century was that its productive forces had exhausted the possibilities of development within the framework of slave-owning production relations. In the times of the late republic and early empire, it turned out that the most rational form of slave-owning production in agriculture was a medium-sized villa with several dozen slaves. Within the scales of such a relatively small economy, it was still possible to ensure vigilant supervision of slaves and successfully implement the specialization and cooperation of slave labor. As practice showed, the framework of the villa was the limit of the development of commodity agriculture based on the exploitation of classical-typeslaves. The maximum size of a private craft workshop was also limited to several dozen slaves; however, a workshop with only a few slaves was more common. A wealthy owner did not expand his workshop but opened new similar workshops in other cities in Italy or in the provinces. Narrow specialization of workers was of particular importance for increasing labor productivity. In ancient, traditional sectors of agriculture and crafts, the labor of free people and slaves coexisted; in new industries, slave labor prevailed.

For further increasing the productivity of slave labor, further development of specialization and cooperation in production, improvement of tools, and increasing the qualifications of a growing mass of slaves were required. However, slaves, who were not interested in their work, did not meet the increased production tasks. Moreover, the masters were afraid to train their slaves in complex professions, to develop their abilities and intellect.

The nature of production relations is determined by the forms of ownership of the means of production; in the Roman Empire of the 3rd century, two main forms of land ownership prevailed: municipal and exempted. Municipal landowners, who owned estates on city land, had long been running commodity economies based on the exploitation of mainly slaves; this was becoming unprofitable, but restructuring their economies into natural, self-sufficient ones, based on the exploitation of more interested workers - coloni, was not allowed by the narrow framework of small and medium-sized estates. In addition, city landowners incurred large expenses in connection with the performance of public duties - liturgies. These included expenses for the construction and repair of public buildings and structures (roads, bridges, aqueducts, baths, etc.), for organizing spectacles, for distributions to the urban poor, etc. Liturgies were inextricably linked with the very essence of the ancient polis as a civic community. The transition to feudal relations on city lands was hindered by the political structure of the self-governing city (municipality), which corresponded to ancient slave-owning relations based on the freedom of citizens and the exploitation of non-citizens. Cities were the support of the slave-owning system of the empire. In the times of the republic and early empire, villages were transformed into municipalities, but from the 3rd century, this tendency fades. It is replaced by the process of revival of rural communities - not only where they still existed, such as in the Danube provinces and Northern Gaul, but also where they no longer existed: on city, imperial, and senatorial lands, the dependent rural population - coloni (various kinds of landholders) and slaves with peculium - create their communities for mutual aid.

In a more favorable position compared to municipal landowners during the crisis of the 3rd century were the owners of exempted lands. Being independent of cities, they were free from liturgies. In the 3rd century, many senators permanently live in their estates in the provinces, despite the attempts of some emperors to bring them back to the capital. Large estates had long been based largely on the labor of various kinds of dependent landholders, i.e., producers who were more interested in their work than slaves. In the 3rd century, the transfer of rural slaves to peculium became widespread: they were settled on plots, allowed to have a family, separate housing, small farming. The position of coloni and slaves with peculium converged. Owners of exempted saltus could establish less burdensome payments and obligations for their holders than the less affluent owners of villas could afford. Therefore, coloni fled from small estates to large ones. Magnates were interested in weakening cities, which challenged their political independence. The type of exempted, i.e., exempt from city management, land ownership included extensive imperial lands. Although there were many slaves in senatorial and imperial estates, the main workers on the land were coloni; slaves were mainly used as craftsmen, servants, and estate administration.

In accordance with the presence of two main forms of land ownership - municipal and exempted - in the 3rd century, two social groups associated with these forms of ownership clashed: urban (municipal) landowners and owners of exempted saltus. This was a clash between two tendencies - slave-owning and feudal. The struggle between the slave-owning and feudal tendencies in the 3rd century, manifested in the antagonism of the two main groupings of the ruling class, in popular movements, and in the onslaught of barbarians, was the beginning of a social revolution that in the following centuries led to the complete collapse of the slave-owning formation throughout the Mediterranean.

Reforms of Diocletian

By the end of the 3rd century, different layers of the ruling class of the Roman Empire, having, as shown above, quite significant contradictions among themselves, temporarily rallied around the imperial power, frightened by the economic crisis, popular movements, and invasions of barbarians. In such a situation, Diocletian, an Illyrian by origin, promoted by the army, came to power.

Diocletian (284-305) created a new form of empire - the Dominate. Its name comes from the Latin word dominus - "master", as Diocletian commanded himself to be called. In fact, already from the beginning of the 3rd century, the Principate was replaced by a military monarchy, but formally it was considered to be preserved. Diocletian put an end to it. The imperial power was deified and acquired an overtly monarchical character. A lavish and complex ceremonial was introduced at the court, modeled on the Persian royal court. This to some extent protected the emperors from the assassinations, so frequent in the 3rd century. All citizens of the empire were considered subjects of the emperor.

Diocletian and his successor Constantine subjectively, apparently, sought to restore the former (i.e., slave-owning) Roman Empire, but, as will be shown later, objectively their reforms, although they contributed to overcoming the crisis of the 3rd century, meant adaptation to changed historical conditions and recognition of the fact that the empire entered the turn of the 3rd and 4th centuries on the path of feudalization.

Under Diocletian, the Bagaudae movement in Gaul was suppressed; Britain was returned to Roman rule; attacks by Germans invading Gaul were repelled; captive barbarians were settled as coloni on imperial lands and in the estates of magnates.

Since the events of the 3rd century showed that it is impossible for one ruler to oversee the entire empire in a situation of internal and foreign policy crisis, a tetrarchy, i.e., rule by four, was created. Diocletian divided the Roman Empire for administrative convenience into two parts - the western and eastern. He took the eastern half for himself and made the city of Nicomedia on the northwestern coast of Asia Minor his residence, and entrusted his co-ruler Maximian to rule the western half of the empire with his residence in Mediolanum (Milan) in Northern Italy. Diocletian and Maximian took the titles of Augusti. Each Augustus received an assistant-deputy, who was called Caesar. Diocletian's Caesar was Galerius, whose headquarters was on the Danube. Maximian's Caesar was Constantius Chlorus, whose headquarters was located on the middle Rhine. The Augusti married the Caesars to their daughters and undertook to elevate the Caesars to the rank of Augusti in 20 years and retire to private life. In disputed matters, the final word belonged to Diocletian as the senior Augustus. It was assumed that the tetrarchy would ensure the centralization of power and at the same time the operational management.

The entire empire was divided into 12 dioceses, which in turn were divided into provinces, with about 100 provinces being formed. The size of the provinces decreased compared to the previous ones, which weakened the governors, but at the same time increased the number of officials; each governor had his bureaucratic apparatus. Civil power in the provinces was separated from military power. The borders of military districts did not coincide with the borders of provinces. Military and civil officials were supposed to monitor each other and report everything to the emperor. These measures were supposed to prevent the secession of provinces, hinder governors and military leaders from seizing power locally.

In the late 3rd and first half of the 4th century, a military reform was carried out. The total number of troops was increased, but at the same time, a reduction in the number of each separate legion was carried out - now this unit consisted of about a thousand soldiers. Before Diocletian, mercenaries-volunteers were recruited into the army mainly from the population of the empire. This was not enough to complete a large army. Diocletian obliged large landowners to provide recruits from among slaves, coloni, and freedmen. The sons of veterans, captive barbarians settled on Roman territory - on imperial and senatorial lands - were also required to serve in the army. Finally, entire units of barbarians, so-called federates, were admitted to military service.

Previously, legions were quartered in provinces and closely connected with the local population. Such troops were difficult to transfer to a threatened section of the border. Under Constantine, the troops were divided into two categories - border and mobile units. The border units were constantly located in certain sections of the border; mobile units were located inside the country and could move in any direction at any time. The breaking up and dispersal of legions achieved greater operational efficiency of the military forces, and also pursued the goal of weakening the power of the commanders and preventing them from seizing the throne.

In connection with the decline in commodity-money relations in the empire, the army, as well as officials, were largely transferred to in-kind subsistence.

Emperor Diocletian, 3rd century AD

Reforms of Constantine

Constantine (306-337), the son of Constantius Chlorus, exterminated or outlived all other claimants to power, destroyed the tetrarchy, and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. The Dominate took its fullest form under him. Constantine largely continued the policies of Diocletian, but in some respects broke with his predecessor. Their religious policies were particularly different: Diocletian fiercely fought against Christianity, while Constantine recognized it as the state religion (Subsequently, a legend was circulated that before one of Constantine's battles with rivals, he saw Christ in a dream with a banner on which a cross and the inscription "conquer by this" were depicted. The opportunistic nature of the deal with Christianity is evident from the fact that Constantine, although he occasionally presided over a church council, was baptized only before his death. However, he allowed his mother Helena to go to Jerusalem to search for the alleged remains of Jesus' cross.).

Under Constantine, Christianity effectively became the dominant religion. In 325, a church council in the Anatolian city of Nicaea was held with the participation of the emperor. The mandatory foundations of Christian doctrine were formulated. Pagan cults began to be displaced from this time, although they were officially banned only at the very end of the 4th century. The dominant church began to be called Christian, Apostolic, Catholic (universal), and Orthodox (i.e., the only correct one).

Having received official recognition, the Christian church turned from persecuted into a strong and wealthy organization. Donations from emperors and magnates, bequests, payments for church services, and income from the exploitation of slaves and coloni in church and monastic estates flowed into its hands. The church became a major landowner and slave owner. An entire hierarchy of church positions was created, headed by archbishops and bishops. The bishops of the largest cities - Rome, Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Antioch - rose above the rest and took the title of patriarch. The Roman and Alexandrian patriarchs were also called popes; later this title was retained only for the Roman patriarch.

Emperor Constantine I, 4th century AD

The higher clergy of the Christian church became an ally of state power and the ruling class, primarily land magnates. At the same time, social struggle often took the form of heresies, i.e., religious currents that disagreed with the official church.

Constantine moved the capital from Italy to the East. This was due to the fact that in the 4th century, the western half of the empire fell into economic decline; the economy of the eastern provinces remained at a higher level. The economic center of the empire shifted to the East, so Rome lost its significance as a political center. Moreover, by leaving Rome forever, Constantine emphasized the break with old political traditions and the final establishment of the Dominate - the despotic power of the emperor. The ancient Greek city of Byzantium, located on the European shore of the Bosphorus Strait between the Aegean and Black Seas, became the new capital of the Roman Empire from 330. Byzantium was renamed Constantinople, i.e., the city of Constantine (now Istanbul). The location for the capital was chosen well: the city is located at the crossroads of military and trade (sea and land) roads, it had a favorable strategic position, occupying an elevation facing one side to the Golden Horn bay. There was a lot of construction in the new capital. Among other buildings, Constantine built Christian churches and pagan temples here.

Having destroyed the tetrarchy, Constantine, however, retained the division of the Roman Empire into four parts for the convenience of governance. These partsbegan to be called prefectures; the officials who headed them, prefects, were directly subordinate to the emperor.

In the 4th century, the estates of coloni, craftsmen, soldiers, and curials were formed, with a tendency for them to be legally serfdom to ensure agriculture and crafts with labor, the army with soldiers, and the state with taxes.

In 332 AD, by decree of Constantine, the coloni were bound to the land: they were deprived of the right to move from one estate to another. Runaway coloni were ordered to be shackled, enslaved, and returned to their former places. Later, laws on the attachment of coloni were repeatedly confirmed, which indicates the prevalence of coloni fleeing. The edict of Emperors Arcadius and Honorius (end of the 4th or beginning of the 5th century) called the coloni "slaves of the land" and allowed them to be sold along with the estates.

Craftsmen working in state workshops were bound to their craft; the rescript of Arcadius and Honorius from 398 AD even ordered these workers to be branded, "so that it would be easier to find them if they hide." Independently operating craftsmen, forced to unite by profession due to economic necessity (as many professions in a given city, so many corporations, or colleges), were bound to colleges: having enrolled as a craftsman of any profession, a person could no longer abandon his craft without the permission of the authorities. The college as a whole was responsible for collecting taxes from its members.

In the 4th century, Constantine and his successors issued a series of decrees on the serfdom of the curials' estate - urban landowners, from which the city councils - curiae - were composed. They were forbidden to leave the city, and their rights to sell estates were limited. Membership in the curials' estate became hereditary. The most important state duty of this estate was responsibility for collecting taxes from the urban population and from rural residents assigned to the city. The previously honorable membership in the curials' estate (in the 3rd century it was called the decurions' estate) became a heavy burden for most of them.

According to Constantine's rescript of 326 AD, the sons of veterans had to either become curials or go into military service. A significant part of the Roman army consisted of recruits recruited from the rural population (coloni, etc.); recruits were branded on the hand.

Slaves did not disappear, the productivity of their labor remained the same, but it was finally found out that the exploitation of workers operating independently is more economical, and the available means of violence already fully allowed such exploitation; therefore, slaves were reduced to an auxiliary role in production. This did not alleviate their situation at all. On the contrary, it is precisely from the time of Constantine that the treatment of slaves is legally tightened. Constantine's decree of 319 AD freed the master from responsibility for the murder of a slave if the latter's death occurred from flogging with rods or whips or from being shackled. It was only forbidden to intentionally kill slaves with a club, stone, weapon, hanging, throwing from a height, tearing by wild animals, fire, poisoning. The list of prohibited methods of killing slaves given in the edict eloquently testifies to the actual executions that took place with them.

The Roman Empire in the 3rd century AD


In the last two centuries of the existence of the Roman Empire, the role of rural communities increased - not only free rural communities where they still remained, for example in the Danube provinces and in Northern Gaul, but also communities of dependent peasants-coloni, settled on someone else's land - privately owned, imperial, urban. The process of reviving the rural community was associated with the need for small farmers to help each other. As the coloni became the main category of producers in agriculture, the rural community became a historical necessity. The community of this period was already a phenomenon of a new quality, since it united not free citizens, but dependent (in essence, already feudal-dependent) peasants.

In the late Roman Empire, two systems coexisted: the slave-owning system, represented in cities, and the feudal system, represented by exempted saltus with coloni and rural communities. These systems interacted, with the slave-owning system allowing for a large staff of slave craftsmen and administrators to be kept in the saltus, which made the saltus autarkic; rural communities also emerged in the saltus. When this system (saltus and communities) became dominant, the predominant form of exploitation became the exploitation of direct producers who owned their means of production, which is characteristic of the stage-close countries of the East. Hence the widespread thesis of the "orientalization" of the empire, which must be understood primarily in a socio-economic sense. At the end of antiquity, Greco-Roman ("ancient") society acquires a structure similar to the structure of other societies at the same stage of development.

The process of economic and political decentralization, anticipating feudal fragmentation, was especially sharply expressed in the western provinces, where private land ownership was more developed than in the eastern provinces with their more numerous and wealthy cities and large imperial land ownership. This, apparently, contributed to the conquest of the western half of the Roman Empire by barbarian tribes in the 5th century.

Related topics

Roman Empire, Diocletian, Constantine the Great, Dominatus, Crisis of the 3rd century in the Roman Empire