Roman emperors from Tiberius onwards were absolute and to some extent sacralized rulers, operating within a court setting and within often uneasy relationships with both the senatorial order and the military. They never succeeded either in making themselves personally secure, let alone invulnerable, or in devising an effective system of succession, but the central political structure all the same survived. One reason was that emperors did succeed in co-opting a large proportion of the provincial elite, and enough of those more modest provincials who were willing to serve in the army. It is not surprising that they were able to do so, since the Roman Empire now served the economic interests of great numbers of its inhabitants, as long as it kept the peace.
There was something more, however, a widely diffused loyalty to the idea of Rome, ranging from a sentiment that was little more than acceptance of Rome’s power to a more articulate belief in the eternity and virtual universality of Roman rule. The latter set of beliefs must have been strongest among those – a minority of the population, but a large and steadily growing minority – who were honoured with Roman citizenship. These factors even carried the Roman Empire through the third-century crisis, though not without major difficulties. This is not to deny that many other of Rome’s subjects were alienated and inclined to rebellion.
How was power distributed within the Roman imperial world? Down to the reign of Marcus Aurelius, or perhaps even the Severan emperors, the long-term trend was probably for the central government to take a more active role, but power was inevitably diffused across the military, the landowners, and officials at all levels. There was no bureaucracy in a mod- ern sense, but there was a large network of men ready to carry out the regularized procedures of administration. As far as efficiency was concerned (a largely modern criterion), the results were mixed, better in some provinces than others. Civil order depended to a great extent on self-help, and to a considerable degree penal procedures were determined by social class.
Fitting the various kinds of social power together is only possible up to a point. A reasonably clear model of the Roman Empire’s social structure is indispensable. The continuing dominance of the landowning class is in any case clear. But while the chief victims of social power were of course the slaves (we need scarcely repeat the usual qualifications to the effect that slavery was the name of a legal not an economic status), many of the most oppressed were simply the indigent. A woman’s power or subjection corresponded, personal factors aside, to her social class, with the main added complication that local traditions had great influence. (It is tempting to suppose that other things being equal it was better for a woman to be as far away from Greek traditions as possible, but semi-Greek Alexandria was very different from semi-Greek Tarsus). The educational practices of the high Roman Empire, which served mainly to convey language skills of various kinds, created an exquisite and secluded world for the social elite in which allusions to the literary classics were essential, while the great mass of the population remained outside, beyond the pale of schooling of any kind. But this system only worked because there were intermediate conditions, and because you could acquire, at one level, literacy, at another level a polished education, if you had the money and the will to do so. Once again, much also depended on location, town versus country, the more Hellenized and Romanized places versus the rest (the Greeks before the Romans in this case, because they continued to favour education more).
The most severe challenge is perhaps to assess the political and social power of ideas. My account tends to play down the reinforcing effect of some prevalent Roman ideas, and it is undoubtedly the case that doctrines about ethics and the organization of society tend to lose their purity in real life. But the idea of Rome itself is not, I think, an idea that has an exact parallel in any modern national idea, exercising a strong appeal to people of heterogeneous origin without much pretence at being democratic. Incorporation was most definitely a limited phenomenon, but at least from Flavian times onwards a very large number of people, not only the upper elite but local elites, as well as most of the military, took it for granted that Rome was worthy of their devotion.
Subversive ideas are easier to isolate and assess, largely because of the victory of Christianity. The rejection of the Roman state by many Christians and by some other cultists was arguably a minor phenomenon as far as power was concerned, but all that began to change when Constantine started giving the Christians privileges. The major effects of Christian ideas came later.
The late-antique contraction of the Roman Empire took place in two entirely separate phases, in the west in the decades on either side of the year 410, in the east in the half-century 600-50. These were separate chains of events: they had their similarities, but they will never be understood unless they are analysed separately.
The nature of the contraction that took place in the earlier of these two periods has been contested, but it is plain that the area in the west- ern empire within which the Roman state exercised power was sharply reduced. By 476 there was no western Roman Empire. Our question here is whether the invaders’ successes and Rome’s military and political failure were due to some new or at least relatively new factors on one side or the other or both. Perhaps because they sensed weaknesses in the empire’s defences, the invaders were relatively numerous. The military forces at Rome’s disposal were neither large enough, notwithstanding some assertions to the contrary, nor of sufficient quality. They were less well armed and less well trained than their high-imperial counterparts (Vegetius is in the end an incriminating witness). In material terms, the Roman Empire was still rich enough to attract predators but could not apparently afford to defend itself adequately – and it became less able to do so with every new campaign. With respect to morale, these military forces that fought for Rome were too much in conflict among themselves, ethnically and religiously – and this latter conflict mattered.
The spread of Christianity might not have made more than a marginal difference to the empire’s ability to defend itself, if it had not brought with it Christian intolerance, intolerance that often took the form of loathing for both pagans and Jews and for those Christians who had different opinions about the supernatural. As for the civilian population, it was unequal to the crisis. While the upper social elite of republican and high-imperial times was driven by personal ambitions and interests, like most human beings, it also demonstrated a patriotic sense of responsibility that was now hard to find. The mass of the population was largely uninterested in defending the status quo, if not alienated from it; our sources only hint at the reasons, but they can probably be summed up as social oppression.
Until the turn of the fifth century, the eastern empire was probably in as much danger from foreign invasions as the western part, but it was the weight of these invasions that collapsed the western regime. Both halves had already been weakened from within, but it was the west that was tested.
The central government by this time delivered very little to its subjects, even by ancient standards. Its power has sometimes been misunderstood, in part because it was strong within a narrow range (hence no emperor was murdered between 383 and 455, which was quite unusual for Rome) but weak beyond that range, so that it could not consistently maintain even the modest level of civil order of earlier centuries any more than it could keep the barbarians out.
Emperors attempted to be imposing figures but how much they succeeded is endlessly debatable. The formal structures of officialdom gave them the potential for detailed control, but there were two obstacles in the way in addition to the increasingly frequent loss of local military control and the failures of civil order. Bishops were one, corruption the other. Bishops and other Christian authority figures had already established by the 370s a semi-independent zone of power within the Roman community, but although this zone included more and more people and possessed greater and greater wealth, its effects on the state were still largely indirect. Financial corruption, meanwhile, though not the central problem of Roman government, as has sometimes been claimed, was also a hindrance. Very rapid turnover in high office may in fact have been as great an obstacle to government effectiveness. In these circumstances neither the gathering of taxes nor the raising of army recruits kept pace with the empire’s needs.
Nothing could be less surprising than the lack of enthusiasm for the Roman state on the part of the mass of the population in the crucial decades. Between, on the one hand, the delegitimization of cherished religious practices and beliefs and, on the other hand, the oppression of the coloni and others, many had reasons to feel alienated. The whole population now experienced a degree of social disintegration. Christian churches offered solidarity to their members, but engaged in sharp and sometimes violent conflicts with their rivals.
Far from being a strong centralized state, the Roman Empire of these years, while still an immense structure that stood up well against its chief eastern rival – Sasanian Persia -, was incapable of mobilizing enough of its resources to resist the Germanic invasions.
There are parallels between the western military crisis and the later one in the east – we could say that the eastern Roman Empire was still, in the early seventh century, rich enough to attract predators but could not afford to defend its full over-extended territorial claims (Justinian’s Folly). As in Italy in 410, it could not even defend its physical kernel in a reliable fashion, let alone its main sources of tax revenue, still less its outer periphery. But which other factors mattered most is even harder to discover, the evidence being quite deficient. Poor generalship and poorly disciplined troops undoubtedly contributed. But there were profound differences too: Justinian’s empire was in the long run unsustainable as Constantine’s was probably not (except that every empire is unsustainable in the very long run).
Other factors that contributed to the Muslims’ fatal impact on the empire of Heraclius and his successors are even harder to define, but they include a degree of militarization on the Muslim side that recalls the militarized Roman society of the middle Republic. The Roman Empire’s deep division between Chalcedonian and Monophysite Christians was also very damaging. There may have been as much religiosity on the Muslim as on the Christian side, and it can be no more than a question whether the Roman state of these years suffered from devoting so much of its man- power and its economic resources to religion.
The successors of Justinian were absolute monarchs, but their internal power was in practice limited or at least fragile. One striking symptom of this was Justin II’s surrender of the power to appoint provincial governors, another was the independent power of the circus factions. But there are other signs too, in particular the power of ecclesiastics and the power of the big landowners. Heraclius could not find within his own realm dependable high-quality military men to take command of his armed forces, and could not harness enough of the energy of his subjects to sustain more than a fragment of what had for long ages been a great and intimidating empire.
In between came long centuries in which occasional imperial misadventures on the battlefield, while they may have helped to define the limits of Roman expansion, made no significant difference to the stability of the state. If one were to speculate, as a historian should from time to time, about other important material fac- tors, there are a number that could quite plausibly be imagined: establishing Mediterranean naval domination, for instance, essentially in the years 260 to 190 BC, may have been made possible by Rome’s having better access to ship-building timber than the Hellenistic states (and Carthage?) did. We may also wonder whether the German neighbours of Rome had in the late fourth century ad acquired better weapons or learned better ways of organizing their fighting forces than had been the case in earlier centuries.
Material factors were also of course fundamentally important in the structuring of internal power. One could write a history of the ancient Mediterranean starting from the physical environment and the institution of slavery, which presumably antedated by millennia any attempt to codify it. Add in property rights, and the scene is set for competition for land and for every other economic resource. The permanent victory of large landowners has been a leitmotif of this study, a dominance that was most complete under the middle Republic, then slightly, but only slightly, imperilled in the age of agrarian laws (133 to 59 BC). In the high Empire the emperors protected property rights, though as we saw earlier the price could be high. In late antiquity the large proprietors were largely unchallenged.
Psychological factors have also made frequent and important appearances. The psychological peculiarities of the Roman soldiers of mid-republican times – disciplined obedience, a deep proclivity to bloodthirsty violence, and, more arguably, a strong sense of honour – were some of the main foundations of the mid-republican empire. The ruthlessness, ambition, and courage of many members of the senatorial order were very much in evidence. The professionalism of the high-imperial soldiers, both legionaries and `auxiliaries’, was a psychological fact as well as a tradition instilled in them by generations of officers. In this age, let us say from Tiberius to Gordian III (14 to 244), the psychological characteristics of the leaders of the state – the emperors and the leading officials both military and civilian – were more variable, but we can observe, among such characteristics, that a good proportion of them were markedly, if understandably, complacent with respect to the outside world.
That religious intolerance was a feature of both of the late-antique crisis periods we have examined needs no further arguing. Both periods were also marked by a relatively weak national conscious- ness among the population at large, and that too is a psychological characteristic. It also seems likely, for example, that the increased ferocity of late-antique punishments, had a social-psychological basis. All this too is an essential part of a history of power.