Roman emperor Diocletian.

During the third and early fourth century, the Roman Empire was reeling from a series of military defeats, and social and economic crises which nearly provoked collapse. Some scholars remarks that the Roman Empire should have collapsed at this time had it not been for the efforts of Emperor Diocletian, who managed to stave off collapse for several centuries thanks to his autocratic rule.

Part of what made the third-century troubles so acute was that external invasion and political instability hit at the same time. Previously, the Empire had always faced one or the other, but not both simultaneously. This trouble was further compounded by economic troubles—hyper-inflation—which almost destroyed the Roman economy. In terms of external threats, the Roman Empire faced its most serious opposition in the Syria, Palestine, and Mesopotamia, the Persian Empire was attacking Roman territories in an effort to regain land which had once been part of Persian territory. Meanwhile, in central Europe, along the Rhine-Danube frontier, the Roman Empire faced pressure from Germanic tribes who were trying to cross over into Roman territory in an effort to settle the land and become Roman citizens. It would not be until then ruling Emperor Discus is killed in battle by the Goths that Germanic tribes would be allowed to settle the land for the next two decades.

Over the course of the next fifty years, as political turmoil propelled various military strongmen to power, the Empire had over 20-25 different emperors throughout the period of 235-284 A.D. Since the average reign of these leaders was around two years, and the original duration of the office was supposed to be for one’s whole lifetime, this did not bode well for Roman prospects. This was because the leaders died violently (battle, assassination, mob violence, etc.).

In an effort to counter-act this threat, Roman leaders doubled the size of the Roman army to roughly six-hundred thousand. To pay for this force, Roman Emperors raised taxes as high as they dared and devalued their currency. Soldiers’ wages were essentially watered down: Roman leaders would dilute the material which currency was created so that one could produce more coins with the same material. This devaluing of silver would lead to great inflation. By 260 there is hardly any silver in the Empire. The quality of life deteriorated in the Roman Empire as a result: between the years 256-80, the cost of living skyrocketed by as much as a thousand-percent. As a result, the Roman economy became de-monetized since the currency was next to worthless. Bartering for goods became the norm.

In 284, the previously mentioned Emperor Diocletian took office. His early rule was unsurprisingly marked by external wars of aggression abroad and attempts to suppress civil war at home. Until 298, Diocletian would rush from one end of his Empire to the other in an attempt to restore Roman frontiers. He succeeded: he expelled the Germanic tribes, pushed back against the Persian incursions, and overcame all of his political rivals. Diocletian, however, had larger ambitions and desired to reshape the whole of the Roman Empire: he did away with the façade of Republicanism, opting to rule wholly autocratically; he became a remote figure who rarely appeared in public in an effort to overwhelm his citizens and promote his title of “Lord and God”; under Diocletian, the Tetrarchy, or ‘Rule of Four,’ was created: this placed the rule of the Empire into the hands of three others strongmen, under the subservience to Diocletian, in an effort to respond quickly to incursions and to create a single system of succession. The empire was cut in half into Eastern and Western portions: so-called ‘Augustus,’ or senior emperors, would rule while so-called ‘Caesars,’ or junior emperor understudies, would assist the senior emperors in administrative and tactical affairs as well as taking the junior emperor’s place once he either died or, as Diocletian had imagined, voluntarily stepped-down.

The system does not work as well as it is imagined, however, and after Diocletian and his Western counterpart step down, civil war breaks out when their successors try and select their own junior emperors. The winner of this contest is Constantine (the Great). He defeats his rivals and rules the empire was a single ruler until his death. One of Diocletian’s other administrative attempts was to get the Roman economy under control; this was done via The Edict of Maximum Prices, issued in 301. The edict established the maximum price for everything sold in the Roman Empire while punishing anyone selling above that price with execution. The policy did not work very well and created a large black market. It is not until Constantine that the gold currency is stabilized and a viable currency is re-established.

Diocletian and Constantine agreed on many things. The idea of completely restructuring Roman society is one of the shared ideas. Part of this restructuring was freezing people into vital occupations (this essentially creates a hereditary caste), and the re-orienting Roman society onto an almost constant war-footing. All of these changes preserved the Empire but the terminal crisis would persist.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s