The Legacy of the Danubian Emperors


Some of the most prominent of the so-called “Illyrian” Emperors (from left to right):
Aurelian, Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian, Valens, Gratian & Justinian.


Permanent damage caused during the third century

Notwithstanding the revulsion with which his name was held by later Roman writers, the emperor Gallienus had at least managed to prevent the complete disintegration of the Roman Empire. He had personally taken the field to withstand barbarian attacks, even though he had not been able to prevent the secession of large parts of the empire from his rule, and his reputation has been largely restored by modern historians.

Yet it had taken the actions of three super-human Danubian generals to stem the tide of anarchy, civil strife and barbarian invasions, each personally leading battle-hardened legions recruited predominantly from the Balkan areas.

Claudius had smashed the Gothic barbarians thoroughly when their ravages seemed to be unstoppable, but his premature death by plague had prevented him from following up his success.

Aurelian had similarly crushed all barbarian intruders and reunited the entire empire under his rule. He had also set in motion the economic reforms needed to restore the devastated Roman economy.

Probus, Aurelian’s loyal general and later emperor in his own right, had maintained his reputation as a destroyer of barbarians while also consolidating the fragile, newly restored empire. He had in addition perhaps settled an honourable peace with Persia.

These three rulers truly deserved the title of ‘Restorer of the World’ (awarded formally only to Aurelian and Probus) and their actions had checked serious barbarian incursions for decades. They had fostered a climate of stability, so important for the restoration of economic confidence, creating the background in which the administrative skills of Diocletian, also a Danubian general, could flourish.

Looking back, it can be seen that the Roman army staff, many of whom were fervent Roman patriots, had decided that they had had enough of incompetent rule by those without proper military training. After watching Gallienus’ inability to restore the empire, senior generals had arranged for his murder and replaced him with one of their own number, Claudius. After Claudius’ premature death from plague, the army ignored his self-appointed successor, his inexperienced brother Quintillus, and appointed Aurelian. Quintillus committed suicide.

When Aurelian was murdered by treachery, the army negotiated for at least two months for an acceptable substitute, Tacitus. Tacitus died, again against the army’s wishes, and again a self-appointed family member, Florian, was deserted in favour of the talented general Probus. After the latter was murdered, the army appeared to accept the self-appointed Carus, a lawyer who dealt competently with the Persians but, after his early death, both of Carus’ sons were eliminated in favour of the general Diocletian. Diocletian would attempt to ensure a proper succession of capable military appointees through the Tetrarchy system. Considering the extraordinary achievements of all the army appointees, it would appear that the army staff’s decision to select the emperors was correct.

Yet even our three supermen could not undo all the damage caused by the chaos of the mid-third century.

1. Poor discipline of the Roman legions

It had become very difficult for even an Aurelian or a Probus to impose strict discipline on the troops, and the latter had lost his life in the attempt. The army was now drawn primarily from the provinces and from the barbarians, so it had little commitment to the concept of supporting Rome. Few Italians, still fewer Romans, now served with the legions. The loyalty of the troops was generally bought with large handouts.

The new emperor Diocletian would be the first of some two dozen of his predecessors – and that tally excludes pretenders to the purple – to have died of natural old age since Septimius Severus 100 years previously. Indeed, if we except the premature death from plague of Claudius in 270, and the doubtful causes of death of Tacitus, Carus and Numerian, Diocletian was the first of these two dozen not to have died violently. However, Diocletian found it necessary to make a huge increase in the size of the Roman army, perhaps by as much as 50 per cent, and this inevitably led to a fresh decline in the standard of the recruits. The Latin historian Aurelius Victor, writing in 360, showed strong antipathy towards the contemporary Roman army, which he blamed for most of the troubles of his and recent times.

In passing, we find that the cavalry formations formed by Gallienus had been returned to the border legions by the time of Diocletian. In later years, Aurelian’s elite light Dalmatian and Moorish cavalry no longer serve as part of the emperor’s main mobile army, but have been stationed on the Danube and Euphrates frontiers. The originator of this change is unknown. Ultimately, the Roman clibanarii (heavy-armoured cavalry) were a flop. The armour was far too stiff for manoeuvrability, was also far too hot for use against the similarly attired Persians, and a mass cavalry charge could be countered easily by tripping up the horses or by slashing at the animal. The unseated rider could scarcely move! The named units of clibanarii known to have existed at the end of the fourth century are believed to have comprised lightly armoured cavalry units only.

2. Failure to eliminate enemies

Whenever a band of barbarians invaded, it was only rarely eliminated completely as an enemy. For example, the invasions by the Alamanni, the Juthungi, the Sarmatians/Vandals and the Goths were recurring disasters that seemed always to be contained by the most temporary of measures – frequently simply by relieving the barbarians of their booty and escorting them out of Roman territory. It was only when Aurelian carried the fight back into Gothic lands in 272 that the wars with those Goths were terminated for a generation. The difficulty was that it was always too dangerous to an emperor to permit a general to have sufficient forces for punitive actions, while the main mobile army under the emperor’s direct command was forever scuttling from one crisis to another.

3. Economic crisis

The need to fund the army had caused heavy taxation and the gross debasement of the coinage, resulting in severe inflation. This phenomenon was well recognized, but little understood at the time. It left an economic legacy that would baffle even Diocletian.

The discovery in later ages of many coin hoards buried during the third century reveals the general insecurity of the times and the need to store the few old coins, with a high proportion of silver or gold, which still possessed real intrinsic value. However, hoarding tended to make everyone less well off, by restricting the free circulation of precious metals.

Even the number of costly burial inscriptions fell steeply during this period of disorder, as evidenced by surviving examples. The trend was not reversed until the accession of Diocletian.

4. Loss of rights

The Romans had for centuries understood that in national emergencies it was necessary to appoint a dictator who would take severe steps as he thought appropriate – and for which he could not later be held accountable – but military necessity had turned every emperor into an outright dictator with the absolute right to pass laws, make civil and military appointments and command armies. Thus the old Roman spirit of seeking public office for personal honour and public benefit had all but died out. The Senate itself was largely abandoned by those qualified to sit in it, as it possessed virtually no real power. Moreover, the fiction by which the emperor referred to himself as Princeps (leading citizen) was vanishing. The emperor had become a sovereign in all but name, and it is now customary to refer to the empire during and after the time of Diocletian as a ‘Dominate’ (ruled by a lord) where previously it had been a ‘Principate’.

5. Walled cities

Another sign of the insecurity of the times was the number of towns and cities that now possessed their own surrounding walls for defence. Rome herself had to be similarly protected during Aurelian’s reign. The walls were built as quickly as possible from any materials that lay to hand; even tombstones were employed as part of the basic structure. The new walls enclosed generally a smaller area than the original town. This may have been for convenience in building the fortifications, but also reflected a steep decline in the Roman population. The smaller cities were cramped, and had no room for large monuments. The construction of an inner city wall at Athens has already been described.

6. Population decline

The population of the Roman world had fallen markedly as a natural consequence of the catastrophes of the third century. Wars, an endemic plague that had lasted for twenty years, causing at one point 7,000 deaths each day at Rome, and general insecurity, which has long been known to reduce birth rates, had all taken their toll. One interesting by-product from the disturbances in Gaul was that many wealthy landowners sold up their estates and fled to the relatively safer province of Britain, where they established the large villas whose remains survive to this day.

7. Collapse of agriculture and of trade

The lands had been ravaged and the population killed or fled. Inevitably there were fewer lands under cultivation, fewer farm hands and fewer mouths to feed. One solution to the shortage of unskilled agricultural labour was to ask cities to send out their idle occupants. The luxury of bread and circuses for the unemployed could no longer be afforded by most towns. Equally, there were fewer markets in which to sell goods. Manufacturers found that their distant markets were inaccessible, due to dangerous communications, or the local people too poor to afford the wares. The glass and pottery industries are known to have been very hard hit in the mid-third century.

The consequence was that the emperors themselves had increasingly to sponsor their own industries, particularly for military goods, and this created unfair competition for any would-be entrepreneurs trying to start their own businesses.

8. Loss of skills

The most intractable problem was the loss of basic skills. The armies themselves had lost large numbers of men in the interminable civil wars, although there was an increasing tendency for the legions on both sides to count their numbers first and for the weaker to murder their own emperor before he led them into a hopeless battle. Worse still was the loss of skilled artisans who had died or been killed, and simply could not be replaced.

The advanced Greek sciences and philosophies virtually dried up in the mid-third century. The last great exponent of pagan philosophy, the Egyptian-Greek Plotinus (205–270), who taught at Rome from 245 after an apprenticeship in Alexandria, produced late in life several books intended to explain the workings of the universe and especially to explain the concept of evil. The writer Porphyry, who was his pupil, attempted to popularize the Neo-Platonism of Plotinus, but it soon fell into disuse. The cultured emperor Gallienus, however, had been much impressed by the philosopher’s work.

The extent and standard of art, as measured by sculptures, books and paintings, and of public buildings, declined markedly over this period. There are virtually no original written works excepting novels, most notably the lengthy Aethiopica by the Greek author Heliodorus. There are no useful histories, save those of Dexippus, and no major poets known from the mid-third century. Fragments of the lesser Latin poets Reposianus and Nemesianus have survived from 280–290. The later emperor Constantine the Great would celebrate his victory over Maxentius (312) with a standard triumphal arch in Rome, for which some of the sculptures had to be removed from a second-century monument. Constantine’s arch still stands next to the famous Colosseum. Mosaics remained of good quality, as can be seen even in Britain, and the standard of engravature on Aurelian’s new coins had much improved.

9. Serfdom

Some of the few remaining wealthy landowners within the empire, such as those in the undisturbed provinces of southern Italy and northern Africa, were in the happy position of being able to purchase large chunks of devastated farmland at knockdown prices from those who had fled. At the same time, the later emperors issued many ordinances to force surplus city dwellers onto the land, to which they were bound by other laws that obliged sons to take up the occupations of their fathers.

The embattled emperors depended heavily on land taxes to pay their armies, and connived – by the passage of legislation – at an arrangement with the landowners whereby the freemen, the clients, on the giant new estates were tied to the land, unable to leave. Thus they became serfs in a system recognizable as the forerunner of the medieval feudal system. Another part of the deal between landlord and emperor was that the estates should provide conscripts for the armies, and this burden also fell on the former clients. The net effect of these changes was that the flight from the land had been arrested, areas under cultivation increased – and the clients had become serfs. This section of the Roman community had involuntarily given up its freedom in order to avoid enslavement by the barbarians.

10. Settlement of barbarians within the empire

One solution to make good the population loss in the shattered areas was to settle captured barbarian tribesmen within the areas that they had devastated, providing a robust new workforce and enabling them to make good the damage they had caused. This was always a dubious policy, as was recognized even by contemporary writers. Many tribesmen were glad of the chance to contribute to Roman civilization, with the attendant benefits for themselves, while the Roman army found them a useful source for hardy recruits. However, some of the barbarians went through the motions of settlement before using their new territory as a convenient base from which to plunder their neighbours. The loyalty of the newly settled tribes must always have been uncertain; less so when the new settlers were themselves fleeing from more violent barbarians in their rear.

11. Degeneration of language

While the empire had remained a strong, cohesive unit, its standard of Latin had remained remarkably homogeneous in all the provinces, as evidenced by surviving inscriptions. The invasions of the mid-third century, and the separation of the breakaway Roman empires, caused the degeneration of Latin speech and grammar into regional accents and variations. In later centuries, these variants would form the foundation of the modern Romance (Latin-derived) languages, French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese.

12. Failure of the pagan religions and philosophy

Worship of the emperor, or of his genius, was never very convincing and adoption of the title of ‘Lord and God’ did not save any of the bearers (Aurelian, Probus and perhaps Carus) from assassination.

Sun worship offered ultimately nothing to humanity struggling under the burdens of barbarian invasions, plague and oppressive taxation. It implied no rules for behaviour and failed to explain the only too obvious struggle between good and evil. Philosophy was also a disappointment; a policy of ascension from the Body to the Soul to the Divine Mind to a godlike state (the ‘One’) by yearning and self-contemplation had little appeal or even challenge. Neither could stand up against the fast-rising movement of Christianity that offered so much more: salvation by Grace and immortality of the soul coupled with strict rules for conduct towards your neighbour and God.

The final legacy

The most enduring achievement of our Danubian supermen may therefore be simply that they allowed the empire to survive; to survive long enough for Christianity to become widespread even among the barbarians and thereby, in Gibbon’s words, ‘[Christianity] broke the violence of the fall [of the Roman Empire], and mollified the ferocious temper of the conquerors.’ Ironically, none of our supermen showed much enthusiasm for Christianity.


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