This is the second of a three part (I) series tackling the complicated and still very much debated question of ‘how bad was the fall of Rome (in the West)?’ In the last part, we looked at ‘words’ – culture, literature, language and religion. What we found is that in these aspects, signs of sharp discontinuity are hard to find – rather the processes of cultural fusion, the expansion of Christianity, and trends towards idealism and stylization in artwork continued pretty much straight through the period. We also made the point that the period from the fourth through the seventh century was hardly some literary wasteland devoid of great or important works.
This week, we’re going to turn to institutions: cities, states, administration and institutional religion. To what degree did the great institutions of Rome survive the collapse of its empire in the West? As we’ll see, this is a complex question because some of those institutions were already dying before the final political collapse began. This question will also dovetail with one of the questions which motivated this series: ‘what caused the loss of state capacity during the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West?’ Of course that assumes a loss of state capacity, but as we’re going to see, the evidence for that loss is actually quite ample.
Before we dive in again, I want to note again that my goal here is to steelman the arguments being made here, presenting them in what I see as their strongest forms (while also delivering my own judgements). I suppose I can tell that I did my job there well enough given that after the last post I was being accused in other corners of the internet of being a rabid partisan of the side of this debate I do not actually hold. But in all seriousness, this is an argument where I think both of the two major ‘sides’ – our two knights, ‘change and continuity’ and ‘decline and fall’ – make good points and that the reality is a blend of their views.
As I noted earlier, this topic was one voted on by the members of the ACOUP Senate, patrons at the Patres et Matres Conscripti level. You too could support this effort on Patreon, but I am just as happy if you share what you are reading here; I rely entirely on word-of-mouth to reach my audience with this public scholarship project. And if you want updates whenever a new post appears, you can click below for email updates or follow me on twitter (@BretDevereaux) for updates as to new posts as well as my occasional ancient history, foreign policy or military history musings.
While last week we noted how the collapse of the Roman Empire in the West did not destroy the Roman cultural sphere so much as accelerate its transformation (albeit into a collection of fragmented fusion cultures which were part ‘Roman’ mixed with other things), it did bring an end to the Roman state in the West (but not the East) and an end to Roman governance. But here too, we have to be careful in defining what that governance meant, because the Roman Empire of August, 378 AD was not the Roman Empire of August, 14 AD. This is a point that is going to come up again and again because how one views the decline of the fifth and sixth centuries depends in part on what the benchmark is: are we comparing it to the empire of Hadrian (r. 117-138) or the empire of Valentinian (r. 364-375)? Because most students are generally more familiar with the former (because it tends to be get focused on in teaching), there is a tendency to compare 476 directly with Rome under the Nervan-Antonines (96-192) without taking into account the events of the third and early fourth century.
Roman rule as effectively codified under the first emperor, Augustus (r. 31BC – 14AD) was relatively limited and indirect, not because the Romans believed in something called ‘limited government’ but because the aims of the Roman state were very limited (secure territory, collect taxes) and the administrative apparatus for doing those things was also very limited. The whole of the central Roman bureaucracy in the first century probably consisted of just a few hundred senatorial and equestrian officials (supported, of course, by the army and also several thousand enslaved workers employed either by the state directly or in the households of those officials) – this for an empire of around 50 million people. Instead, day to day affairs in the provinces – public works, the administration of justice, the regulation of local markets, etc. – were handled by local governments, typically centered in cities (we’ll come back to them in a moment). Where there were no cities, the Romans tended to make new ones for this purpose. Roman officials could then interact with the city elites (they preferred oligarchic city governments because they were easier to control) and so avoid having to interact directly with the populace in a more granular way unless there was a crisis.
By contrast, the Roman governance system that emerges during the reigns of Diocletian (r. 284-305) and Constantine (r. 306-337) was centralized and direct. The process of centralizing governance1 had been going on for some time, really since the beginning of the empire, albeit slowly. The Constitutio Antoniniana (212), which extended Roman citizenship to all free persons in the empire, in turn had the effect of wiping out all of the local law codes and instead extending Roman law to cover everyone and so doubtless accelerated the process.
During the Crisis of the Third Century (235-284) this trend accelerates substantially; the sources for this period are relatively poor, making it hard to see this process clearly. Nevertheless, the chaotic security situation led Roman generals and usurpers to make much greater demands of whatever local communities were in their reach, while at the same time once in power, emperors sought to draw a clearer distinction between their power and that of their subordinates in an effort to ‘coup proof’ their regimes. That new form of Roman rule was both completed and then codified by Diocletian (r. 284-305): the emperor was set visually apart, ruling from palaces in special regalia and wearing crowns, while at the same time the provinces were reorganized into smaller units that could be ruled much more directly.
Diocletian intervened in the daily life of the empire in a way that emperors before largely had not. When his plan to reform the Roman currency failed, sparking hyper-inflation (whoops!), Diocletian responded with his Edict on Maximum Prices, an effort to fix the prices of many goods empire wide. Now previous emperors were not averse to price fixing, mind you, but such efforts had almost always been restricted to staple goods (mostly wheat) in Rome itself or in Italy (typically in response to food shortages). Diocletian attempted to enforce religious unity by persecuting Christians; his successors by the end of the century would be attempting to enforce religious unity by persecuting non-Christians. Whereas before taxes had been assessed on communities, Diocletian planned a tax system based on assessments of individual landholders based on a regular census; when actually performing a regular census proved difficult, Constantine responded by mandating that coloni – the tenant farmers and sharecroppers of the empire – must stay on the land they had been farming so that their landlords would be able to pay the taxes, casually abrogating a traditional freedom of Roman citizens for millions of farmers out of administrative convenience. Of course all of this centralized direction demanded bureaucrats and the bureaucracy during this period swelled to probably around 35,000 officials (compared to the few hundred under Augustus!).
All of this matters here because it is this kind of government – centralized, bureaucratic, religiously framed and interventionist, which the new rulers of the fifth century break-away kingdoms will attempt to emulate. They will mostly fail, leading to a precipitous decline in state capacity. This process worked differently in different areas: in Britain, the Roman government largely withered away from neglect and was effectively gone before the arrival of the Saxons and Angles, a point made quite well by Robin Flemming in the first chapter of Britain after Rome (2010), while in Spain, Gaul, Italy and even to an extent North Africa, the new ‘barbarian’ rulers attempted to maintain Roman systems of rule.
This is thus an odd point where the ‘change and continuity’ and ‘decline and fall’ camps can both be right at the same time. There is continuity here, as new kings mostly established regimes that used the visual language, court procedure and to a degree legal and bureaucratic frameworks of Late Roman imperial rule. On the other hand, those new kingdoms fairly clearly lacked the resources, even with respect to their smaller territories, to engage in the kind of state activity that the Late Roman state had, for instance, towards the end of the fourth century. Instead, central administration largely failed in the West, with the countryside gradually becoming subject to local rural magnates (who might then be attached to the king) rather than civic or central government.
The problem rulers faced was two-fold: first that the Late Roman system, in contrast to its earlier form, demanded a large, literate bureaucracy, but the economic decline of the fifth century (which we’ll get to next time) came with a marked decline in literacy, which in turn meant that the supply of literate elites to staff those positions was itself shrinking (while at the same time secular rulers found themselves competing with the institutional Church for those very same literate elites). Second – and we’ll deal with this in more depth in just a moment – Roman rule had worked through cities, but all over the Roman Empire (but most especially in the West), cities were in decline and the population was both shrinking and ruralizing.
That decline in state capacity is visible in a number of different contexts. Bryan Ward-Perkins (Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), 148ff) notes for instance a sharp decline in the size of Churches, which for Christian rulers (both the post-Constantine emperors and the new ‘barbarian’ kings) were major state building projects meant to display either royal or local noble wealth and power; Church size really only reaches Late Roman equivalent in the West (an important caveat here, to be sure) in the ninth century. In this kind of context it is hard to say that Visigothic or Merovingian rulers are actually just doing a different form of rulership because they’re fairly clearly not – they just don’t have the resources to throw at expensive building projects, even when you adjust for their smaller realms.
Nor is it merely building projects. Under Constantine, the Romans had maintained a professional army of around 400,000 troops.2 Much of the success of the Roman Empire had been its ability to provide ‘public peace’ within its borders (at least by the relatively low standards of the ancient world). While the third century had seen quite a lot of civil war and the in the fourth century the Roman frontiers were cracking, for much of the empire the legions continued to do their job: war remained something that happened far away. This was a substantial change from the pre-Roman norm where war was a regular occurrence basically everywhere.
The kingdoms that emerged from the collapse of Roman rule proved incapable of either maintaining a meaningful professional army or provisioning much of that public peace (though of course the Roman state in the West had also proved incapable of doing this during the fifth century). Instead those kingdoms increasingly relied on armies led by (frequently mounted) warrior-aristocrats, composed of a general levy of the landholding population. We’ve actually discussed some of the later forms of this system – the Anglo-Saxon fyrd and the Carolingian levy system – already; those systems are useful reference points because they’re quite a bit better attested in our evidence and reflect many of the general principles of how we suppose earlier armies to have been organized.
The shift to a militia army isn’t necessarily a step backwards – the army of the Middle Roman Republic had also been a landholder’s militia – except that in this case it also marked a substantial decrease in scale. Major Merovingian armies – like the one that fought at Tours in 732 – tended to be around 10,000-20,000 men (mostly amateurs), compared to Late Roman field armies frequently around 40,000 professional soldiers or the astounding mobilizations of the Roman Republic (putting around 225,000 – that is not a typo – citizen-soldiers in the field in 214, for instance). Compared to the armies of the Hellenistic Period (323-31BC) or the Roman Empire, the ability of the post-Roman kingdoms to mobilize force was surprisingly limited and the armies they fielded also declined noticeably in sophistication, especially when it came to siege warfare (which of course also required highly trained, often literate engineers and experts).
That said, it cannot be argued that the decline of ‘public peace’ had merely begun in the fifth century. One useful barometer of the civilian sense of security is the construction of city walls well within the empire: for the first two centuries, many Roman cities were left unwalled. But fresh wall construction within the Empire in places like Northern Spain or Southern France begins in earnest in the third century (presumably in response to the Crisis) and then intensifies through the fifth century,3 suggesting that rather than a sudden collapse of security, there had been a steady but significant decline (though again this would thus place the nadir of security somewhere in the early Middle Ages), partially abated in the fourth century but then resumed with a vengeance in the fifth.
Consequently the political story in the West is one of an effort to maintain some of the institutions of Roman governance which largely fails, leading to the progressive fragmentation and localization of power. Precisely because the late Roman system was so top-heavy and centralized, the collapse of central Roman rule mortally wounded it and left the successor states of Rome with much more limited resources and administration to try to achieve their aims.
But, speaking of cities…
The ancient Mediterranean was a world of cities and in the eastern Mediterranean at least, it had been long before the Roman period. By the beginning of the Roman Republic (509 BC), the pattern of organization was broadly similar in Italy, Sicily, coastal North Africa, Egypt, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Greece: agricultural land was broken up into the territory of cities (so that each city consisted of both its urban core but also its agricultural hinterland). Those cities might then either be independent, as with the poleis of Greece and the various communities of pre-Roman Italy, or be the basic administrative units of larger empires, as in the Persian Empire (or later Roman Italy). And so, while most people still lived in the countryside, most of that countryside was in turn attached to an urban center which was the center of political, economic, religious and cultural life.
This was the world the Romans knew and the world they were most comfortable governing. Consequently, while the Romans were utterly uninterested in ‘civilizing’ anyone, when they conquered areas which weren’t urbanized, they tended to found cities or encourage local urbanization in order to create the administrative structures through which the Romans could extract revenue most efficiently.
As mentioned above, the Romans generally wanted these cities to be mostly self-governing. While at conquest, the Romans found themselves managing a bewildering array of different styles of local urban government, over time a mix of Roman administrative preference and cultural diffusion tended to produce a fairly similar set of civic institutions. City governments, which also administered their rural countryside, were run by a town council which consisted of the wealthiest notables of the town – the curiales – in much the same way that the Roman upper-class had dominated the running of the city during the Republic. Roman authority generally protected the curiales and their wealth from the sorts of popular uprisings that tempered many Greek oligarchies in the classical period and in return the curiales managed the population and the collection of taxes for the Romans.
The curiales both managed the town affairs and were also expected to use their own wealth to fund public activity and works: maintain temples and baths, fund religious rituals and festivals, and so on. Through the first and second century, that process was mostly responsible for providing the cities of the Roman Empire with the impressive collection of often still-visible public works they boasted: baths, theaters, amphitheaters, aqueducts, temples, courthouses, public spaces and so on. While some of these structures were little more than the public posturing of the elites, many of them were open to the general public and will have represented, in as much as anything before the industrial revolution could, meaningful improvements in the lives of regular people.
While most of the wealth of any of these cities was derived from the rents and taxes extracted from their agricultural hinterlands, these cities also substantially lived off of trade and markets. Because the local city typically housed the local market, they were the obvious point for local products to enter the stream of provincial-wide or empire-wide trade or for distant imports to reach their final customers. We’ll come back to this next time when we discuss trade and the economy, but for now I want to note that this trade provided a fair bit of the economic vitality of these cities but also that it did in fact reach down beyond mere luxury goods into the basic staples that even the relatively poor might buy.
The decline and fall of these Roman cities is most extensively described in J.H.W.G. Liebeschuetz’ aptly titled, Decline and Fall of the Roman City (2001). Given his title, as you might imagine, Liebeschuetz is in the ‘decline and fall’ camp, arguing that the classical city which defined the Roman world largely did not survive it. Regional patterns differ, with Liebescheutz identifying three ‘patterns:’ I) Western and Central Anatolia, II) Syria, Palestine and Arabia, III) the West, including North Africa).
We’ll deal with the situation in the East in just a moment, so let’s focus here on the cities of the West, which were at the start generally smaller, less wealthy and generally far younger than those of the East (with some exceptions in Italy). Decline sets in fastest and is most severe in Britain, with the final collapse of the cities coming as early as the 360s, whereas in North Africa, the classical city doesn’t seem to tip into decline until after 400.
While each individual region and indeed each city will have been subject to its own unique conditions, a few basic causes seem to have been active everywhere to some degree. First, the crisis of the third century seems to have fundamentally disrupted empire-wide Roman trade, which then stabilized at a lower level for the fourth century, before declining precipitously in the fifth. That first decline seems to have been somewhat offset by the increased demands of imperial administration and in particular the centralized taxation in-kind and movement of goods which had to move through cities. Peter Brown describes the late Roman state as, “the crude but vigorous pump which had ensured the circulation of goods in an otherwise primitive economy” (The Rise of Western Christendom, 2nd ed., 13). We’ll return to this when we discuss the shape of the economy next time, but for now it works as a crude, but vigorous description of that facet of the late Roman economy.
At the same time, as Liebescheutz describes, the role of the curiales steadily atrophies in the fourth century. On the one hand, much of the authority and power of being on the council was steadily eroded as those functions were pulled upwards into the imperial bureaucracy. At the same time, members of the curial class who sought imperial office could get immunities from the progressively more severe taxation which otherwise often fell on the curiales and so the imperial elite often crowded out the curiales when it came to wealth and prestige in the community. As they lost both control and responsibility for their cities, the curiales investment in public works and monumental architecture also ceased (though local elites do invest in church-building and monastic foundations), leading to the decay of the physical urban centers.
Finally, the warfare of the fifth century had its impact, though as Liebescheutz notes, it cannot be presented as a sole cause simply because many urban areas were already clearly in decline when conflict hit. In the case of Britain, the cities were gone by 420, decades before the arrival of any invaders. Nevertheless, political instability and violence in the fifth century seems to have delivered death-blows to ailing communities, especially in the Balkans and along the Rhine.
The end result was that in the West, urbanism declined severely between the fourth and sixth centuries. Rome, once a city of a million people, collapsed down to a population of just 80,000. Arles, which had been a thriving Roman city with an amphitheater, an aqueduct, a chariot-racing track, a theater and full city walls shrunk so severely that the remains of the city moved inside its amphitheater, repurposing it as a new set of city walls, with the town square in the middle and houses built in the stands. While many towns survived in their new, shrunken and impoverished form, urbanism in Europe outside of the Eastern Roman Empire would largely have to be reinvented during the High Middle Ages, (though with some key institutional survivals from the Roman era and often rising out of the diminished remains of Roman cities). Instead, the society of the early Middle Ages was overwhelmingly rural in both population and focus. If on politics we have a bit of a mix between decline and continuity, when it comes to the cities that made up the old political system, the ‘decline and fall’ knight strikes a clear blow: the system of social organization that characterized the ancient world practically vanished and would have to be redeveloped centuries later. The institutions that had maintained it (like the curiales) largely vanished, replaced in some cases by local ‘notables’ and in other cases by ruralization.
But the decline of political and civic institutions did not mean the decline and destruction of every sort of institution and this is particularly obvious with the survival of the institutional Church. It is important here to stress at the beginning how Roman an institution the Church was by the start of the fifth century. After Constantine (with a brief hiatus under the emperor Julian) the ‘catholic’ church (that is, the institutional Church which conformed to the ‘right’ sort of Christianity) had been the continued recipient of imperial benefaction: emperors built churches and funded Church activity. This was itself very Roman, reflecting a continuation of the role that pagan emperors had played in previous centuries, demonstrating their piety by building temples and reviving old religious practices. The emperors had not ‘gotten religion’ but merely changed religion and so changed their religious benefaction accordingly.
The emperors and the Roman state had also taken an active role beginning in the fourth century in defining exactly what the ‘right’ sort of Christianity was. In response to a dispute over the ordination of bishops in North Africa (the ‘Donatist‘ schism), Constantine called a council of bishops to convene in Arles in 314 to resolve the matter (it didn’t work and Constantine began persecuting the remaining Donatists). But that council would hardly be the last – Constantine convoked the first ecumenical council (one that in theory reflected the entire Christian Church) in Nicaea in 3254 in order to create a single universal Christian doctrine and resolve a number of internal disputes (having grown as a religion in secret and facing persecution, as you might imagine Christianity had a lot of significant local variations). The emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395) convened the next major council at Constantinople in 381; after that it was the emperor Theodosius II (r. 402-450) who convened the next at Ephesus in 431 and then the emperor Marcian (r. 450-457) who convened the next at Chalcedon in 451. All of these councils served to define what the ‘right’ Christianity was (‘Chalcedonian‘ Christianity, named after the council), putting some belief systems outside of the doctrine of the Roman Church.
But whereas other Roman institutions didn’t survive the collapse of Roman political authority, the Church as an institution very much did. It was perhaps not obvious that it would – many of the ‘barbarians’ had embraced a non-Chalcedonian Christianity, Arianism, and so might have been hostile to the Church as it existed in Rome. But in practice the need to consolidate the loyalty of their Roman Chalcedonian Christian subjects (on this, note Brown, op. cit. 2nd ed., 105-6, 133-8) and the prestige that the institutional Church held led the rulers of Rome’s successor states to convert to Chalcedonian Christianity; the last of the major Arian Christian kings was Garibald, King of the Lombards in 671.
Indeed, the institutional Church was in some ways a lifeboat in which other elements of the Late Roman world were carried through the storm of the fifth century into the Middle Ages. We’ve already talked about the Church’s role in preserving a fair chunk of the Latin literary tradition. Much of this was done through the spread and then perseverance of monasticism. The first communities of monks emerged in the Eastern Roman Empire in the fourth century and spread through the failing Roman Empire in the fourth and fifth centuries. The Western monastic tradition builds from this with the foundation of Monte Cassino5 in 529 by Benedict of Nursia and the promulgation of the Rule of Saint Benedict.
Meanwhile, the Church also emerged as one of the central institutions in the cities of the Roman world, with the bishop, the religious head of the Church in a given city, emerging as a key figure in civic governance. While the figure of the bishop rose to importance in both the East and the West, in the East, bishops largely did not move into becoming secular leaders alongside religious figures, in part presumably because the central Roman authority still existed to handle those functions. But in the West, the decline of both civic and centralized government left bishops in the breach. This in turn often preserved older Roman political geography as Liebeschuetz notes, with the civitas surviving as an administrative unit in the form of the diocese6 of a bishop, precisely because those bishoprics were originally established along Roman administrative lines and remained so even after Roman administration vanished. Bishops ended up taking up some of the tasks that in the past would have fallen to a Roman governor and since they had their seats in the embattled Roman cities, many of those cities survived the difficult fifth and sixth centuries precisely because they were the seat of a bishop.
And in order to run the institution of the Church, its bishoprics and their diocese, it needed both educated clergy who could read the Bible but also administrators who had learned the law – by which they meant Roman law. Secular learning had largely collapsed with the Roman Empire in the West – it had existed to provide training for wealthy men to become secular administrators for the central imperial government and so when the demand for that kind of training vanished, so too did the schools that trained the administrators and jurists. And so the Church had to train them itself, setting up episcopal and monastic schools which trained theology, but also law and administration (and of course provided the context for that survival of Latin literature as a teaching tool). As levels of education and literacy among the secular elite declined, it made sense for kings to employ bishops and other members of the clergy as members of their own administration, leading to this distinctly Roman religious institution having a key place within the secular ‘barbarian’ kingdoms that followed.
The picture in the East is more complex. We’ve been avoiding the Eastern Roman Empire because our question is about the fall of Rome and Rome didn’t fall there. Like the successor states of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire was heir to the centralized, bureaucratic, somewhat top-heavy imperial system of the late empire, though whereas the Western Empire had multiple centers of power (Rome itself, but also Ravenna, Milan and Split all spent time as imperial headquarters), in the East, Constantinople was the obvious center of the empire and thus the home of the imperial bureaucracy.
This isn’t a place for a full history of the Eastern Roman Empire (because that would run until 1453), but we do need to note some features. The Eastern Roman Empire was more urbanized, more densely peopled and wealthier than the West, but it also faced arguably more severe security problems in the fifth century and beyond. The East was as exposed in the fifth century to the in-migration of the Goths (Adrianople had been in the Eastern Empire, after all) and later the Huns, but the armies of the East always had to have their primary focus on the Eastern border with the Sassanid Empire. Founded out of the collapse of the Parthian Empire in 205, the Sassanid Empire was a hostile competitor to Rome for its entire existence (205-651), with the two at war more often than not and engaged in a robust cold war stand off between wars. The Sassanids, controlling the Iranian Plateau, Mesopotamia and the coastlines of the Persian Gulf, were a true peer to the Eastern Roman Empire, similar in size, population and wealth. Both states had sophisticated and disciplined armies.
The fourth century had seen a series of major wars between the two powers, culminating in the disastrous campaign of 363 which cost the emperor Julian his life. Despite more minor flare-ups (in 421 and 440), the fifth century was calmer which was fortunate because the Eastern Roman Empire had its hands full for much of the century dealing with the Goths and Huns. But the calm broke in the sixth century with a series of inconclusive but escalating wars (502-506, 526-532, 541-562, 572-591). Nevertheless it was in the midst of this that the emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) – an emperor of considerable talents and supported by the equally talented Empress Theodora – felt strong enough to try to reclaim large parts of the Western Roman Empire, launching invasions into North Africa, Italy and Spain while also fighting with the Sassanids. Justinian’s campaigns were successful, but they mostly succeed only in straining imperial resources, especially because climate-motivated harvest failures in the 530s and plague in the 540s severely weakened the empire precisely as he was stretching it.
The bigger catastrophe was Khosrow II (r. 590-628), a Sassanid Shahanshah with both talents and ambitions to match the by then deceased Justinian, who would be even more of a disaster to his own empire. In 602, Khosrow launched what would be the last great Roman-Sassanid War (though by this point, after Justinian, we generally call this state the Byzantine Empire, so this would be the last great Byzantine-Sassanid War; I am going to keep calling these folks the Romans because that’s what they called themselves). Khosrow was initially fantastically successful, overrunning much of the Eastern Roman Empire and even laying siege to Constantinople in 626 but then the tide turned catastrophically against him. Khosrow II was killed in a mutiny which sparked civil war in the Sassanid Empire and left both empires exhausted, their subjects over-taxed and war weary. And then in 634, Arab armies, united by the new religion of Islam slammed into the Roman province of Syria; by 650, Egypt, Syria and the Levant were lost to the Romans, while the Sassanid Empire was destroyed outright. What was left of the Eastern Roman Empire became a primarily Aegean power, its strength concentrated in the Balkan Peninsula and Anatolia and the sea that united them.
Unlike in the West, where the Church and secular rulership had eventually become separate institutions, in the East the emperor and the church – what would become the Eastern Orthodox Church – were closely linked and there was an expectation that the emperor would encourage the ‘right’ sort of Christianity. That was certainly a continuity with early Roman policy – the first emperor to persecute Christians for being the ‘wrong sort’ of Christians was Constantine who persecuted the Donatists. By 388, imperial law required all citizens of the empire to follow “catholic” Christianity (the term adopted, amusingly, by the anti-Donatists to define themselves against the Donatist ‘heretics;’ in this context it doesn’t mean ‘Roman Catholic’ but merely ‘not heretical’) and so the emperors attempted to enforce that. This was a problem because prior to the loss of Syria and Egypt to the Rashidun Caliphate, the ‘heretics’ may have outnumbered the ‘orthodox’ though of course the many splintered heretical branches didn’t agree with each other either. Miaphysite Christianity was common in Egypt and the Levant and Nestorianism was common in Syria (though many Nestorians fled Roman persecution to live in the Sassanid Empire). Efforts by the imperial center to stamp out these branches of Christianity contributed to the ease with which the southern parts of the empire were lost to the Rashidun Caliphate: many ‘heretical’ Christians could expect better treatment under Muslim rulers who did not much care what sort of Christian one was.
Urban culture lasted longer in the East than in the West, though regional patterns vary. In Syria, Egypt and the Levant, Liebescheutz notes that on the whole the classical form of city continues largely unchanged during the fifth century and indeed continues relatively undiminished until the eighth century. The relatively rapid Muslim conquests caused these regions to transition fairly seamlessly from being protected Roman territory to being the core heartland of the Umayyad dynasty; it was only the movement of the capital to Baghdad under the Abbasid which finally led to the marked decline of these civic centers. The exception here were cities that had thrived off of Mediterranean trade – places like Antioch, Tyre and Caesarea, which lost importance as those trade systems broke down, though their fall was matched by the rise of places like Aleppo, Damascus and Emesa (modern Homs).
Urban decline in Anatolia and around the Aegean was swifter and sharper; older scholarship (and occasionally newer scholarship) tends to assume that the downturn for most of these cities began with the catastrophic Roman-Sassanid Wars of the 600s, but Liebescheutz shows fairly clearly that for the smaller centers, the decline set in substantially earlier, though the full collapse would come only in the seventh century. What seems to be the main factor was the further centralization of Roman administration, leading to wealth and importance piling up around regional and provincial capitals which became the focus of that centralized administration.7 Consequently the smaller centers declined sharply, while the provincial and later theme capitals held on.
Roman governance in the East responded to the challenges of the sixth and seventh century with evolution. Civil and military officials, who had been divided by Diocletian, began to be merged back together by Justinian in an effort to make provinces which were more able to defend themselves; this trend would continue and culminate in the mid-seventh century with the theme system, which tied territorial division directly to local military units (both called themata) which in theory were then supported by the main field army (the tagmata) which stayed with the emperor in Constantinople. This system shed almost all of its old Roman terminology and organization (indeed, much of it was gone by the age of Justinian), but it represented a fairly straightforward evolution of the Late Roman army, changing in small evolutionary steps over centuries.
If our look at ‘Words’ was largely a victory for our knight of ‘change and continuity,’ the look at ‘Institutions’ has been much more mixed, with the collapse of urbanism in particular making for a strong argument for a ‘decline and fall’ viewpoint. But the collapse of institutions was hardly a complete process, with significant survivals in the Church and also in the East. And while political institutions did collapse, the kingdoms that followed owed more than a little of their structure to the Roman model that had come before, yet at the same time, the decline of administrative capacity and state capabilities is obvious: these were smaller, weaker, poorer states. In my own view, the question, in the end, really comes down to the impact this period had on the lives of the great majority of people who were not elites and did not wield any power within the great institutions of the day. And that’s where we’ll go for our last part of this series, on ‘Things.’
- Note – not power. Power had always been centralized – this was an empire where the Romans ruled and everyone else was ruled, not some kind of federal structure and so Roman governors – be they senatorial promagistrates or imperial legati – had practically absolute authority in their provinces. They just tended not to exercise it fully it because Roman aims were limited.
- There is a lot of scholarly debate on the size of the Late Roman army and has been for quite some time. Southern and Dixon, The Late Roman Army (1996) provides a decent summary to the 90s, but then note Potter, The Roman Empire at Bay: AD 180-395 (2004) for a heterodox take. Estimates range anywhere from around 360,000 (Potter) to as high as 645,000 (A.H.M. Jones). Also note that while older studies of the Late Roman Army tend to treat it as a composite group with professional comitatenses and part-timer limitanei, but it is increasingly clear that the limitanei of the fourth and fifth century were full-time soldiers
- For details on this, E. Intagliata, S. Barker and C. Courault, City Walls in Late Antiquity (2020)
- Contrary to popular belief, neither this nor any other council established the biblical canon. Instead the canon had formed earlier, in the second and third centuries, through a more ad hoc consensus process, rather than being mandated by the organized church. By Nicaea, the canon had been largely set for at least fifty years.
- As a side note: you can visit Monte Cassino and it is not to be missed, although of course the current structure dates only to WWII. It has some family resonance for me as well – my grandfather visited with the US 5th Army in 1944 under far less pleasant circumstances
- Itself a Roman administrative term – a dioecesis was originally a collection of small provinces into a single unit, a division created by Diocletian
- Provincial capitals, it should be noted, was a new thing for late antiquity – Roman provincial government in the early and high empire was itinerant. Governors moved through their province over the course of their year and left at the end, keeping no permanent base.