Diocletian began to reign A.D. 284, and once more revived the vigor of the declining empire, which now seemed more than ever to depend for its existence upon the qualities of a single ruler. It seems, indeed, to have required an intellect of no common order to preserve the unity of the empire, composed of so many different nations, of territories separated by such vast distances, and threatened on every side by innumerable foes; but, of all his contemporaries, Diocletian was best suited to this task. His parents had been the slaves of a Roman Senator, and he had himself risen from this low station to the highest positions in the army. He acted with generosity toward the servants of the former emperor, not only suffering them to remain in safety under his rule, but even to retain their offices. Finding the empire too large to be governed by a single ruler, he selected as his colleague Maximian, a brave, but fierce and ignorant soldier, who, like himself, had risen to a high rank in the army. Maximian, however, always admitted the intellectual superiority of Diocletian. The emperor assumed the title of Jovius, and Maximian that of Herculius. Diocletian also appointed two Cæsars, Constantius and Galerius, to aid him in the defense of the empire, which was divided between the four princes. Gaul, Spain, and Britain were intrusted to the care of Constantius, Italy and Africa to Maximian, Galerius commanded the legions on the Danube, while Diocletian reserved for himself Thrace, Egypt, and Asia. The four rulers seemed to have labored together in harmony, but the establishment of four courts in different parts of the empire obliged them to increase the taxes, and every province suffered under new impositions. Even Italy, which had always been favored in this particular, was now heavily burdened, and every where lands were abandoned and left uncultivated because their owners could not pay the taxes and impositions. In A.D. 287 a rebellion occurred in Gaul, which was suppressed by Maximian; soon after, Carausius, having become master of Britain, and possessing a considerable fleet, defied the power of the emperor; but when Constantius was appointed Cæsar he prepared to reduce the island to subjection. In A.D. 294 Carausius was put to death by Allectus, a new usurper. Constantius now crossed the Channel and recovered the island, which, after a separation of ten years, was once more reunited to the empire. During this reign the Goths, Vandals, and other northern barbarians wasted their strength in destructive contests with each other; but whenever, in intervals of peace, they invaded the Roman territory, they were driven back by the valor of the two Cæsars. Maximian, in the mean time, subdued a revolt in Africa; and Diocletian himself suppressed one of those seditions to which Egypt was constantly exposed. The emperor besieged Alexandria for eight months, cut off the aqueducts which conveyed water to the city, and, having taken it, put many thousands of its citizens to death. One remarkable edict which he now published forbade the study of alchemy in Egypt, and ordered all books upon that subject to be burned. He also made a treaty with the Nubians, in order to protect the frontiers of Egypt.
It gives us, indeed, a clear view of the immense extent of the Roman power when we reflect that its commanders were, almost at the same moment, struggling successfully against its enemies in Africa, Britain, Germany, and the East. A war with Persia now arose, in which Galerius was at first defeated, A.D. 296. But the next year he passed through the mountains of Armenia at the head of twenty-five thousand chosen men, and, having surprised the Persian army in the night, slaughtered great numbers of them; the booty, too, was immense. A barbarian soldier, finding a bag of shining leather filled with pearls, threw away the contents and preserved the bag; and the uncultivated savages gathered a vast spoil from the tents of the Persians. Galerius, having taken prisoners several of the wives and children of the Persian monarch Narses, treated them with such tenderness and respect that Narses made peace. Mesopotamia was now added to the empire, being taken from the King of Armenia, who received in its place a considerable Persian province.
The two emperors returned to Rome and celebrated their triumph November 20, A.D. 303, the last spectacle of that kind which the world has witnessed. Romulus, more than a thousand years before, had ascended the Capitoline Mount on foot, bearing in his arms the spoil of Acron, and his example had been followed by a long line of Roman heroes. In the last triumph, the two emperors were attended by the spoils of Africa and Britain, of the East and the West.
During this reign also occurred the last persecution of the Christians, who were soon to become the masters of the empire. It began A.D. 303, and continued for ten years; and such multitudes of the Christians perished that the emperors boasted that they had wholly extirpated the sect!
Diocletian introduced an Eastern pomp into his court, assumed the titles of "Lord and Emperor," and wore a diadem set with pearls. His robes were of silk and gold. He required his subjects to prostrate themselves before him, and to adore him as a divinity.
In A.D. 305, like Charles V., he resolved to abdicate his power, having persuaded his colleague Maximian to do the same: he lived in retirement for nine years, and amused himself cultivating his garden. "I wish you would come to Salona" (Spalatro), he wrote to Maximian, who sought to draw him from his retirement, "and see the cabbages I have planted: you would never again mention to me the name of empire" But the close of his life was embittered by the ingratitude of Constantine and Licinius, and the dangers of the empire. It is not known whether he died by disease or by his own hand.
Upon the abdication of Diocletian and his colleague, the two Cæsars, Constantius and Galerius, assumed the title of Augustus. Constantius retained his former provinces, Gaul, Spain, and Britain. He was moderate, amiable, and lived with Roman simplicity. Galerius, on the other hand, was haughty, severe, and ambitious. He had married a daughter of Diocletian, and hoped that the death of Constantius would soon leave him the sole emperor of Rome. The two emperors now appointed two Cæsars, Maximin and Severus, the first nephew to Galerius, and the latter devoted to his interests. Constantius died at York, in Britain, A.D. 306, and his son Constantine was proclaimed Augustus by the soldiers.
This prince, afterward Constantine the Great, was the son of Constantius and Helena, who was said to have been the daughter of an inn-keeper. When Constantius became Cæsar he divorced Helena, and her son was, in a measure, neglected. Constantine, however, soon distinguished himself as a soldier, and won the affection of the army. In appearance he was tall, dignified, and pleasing; he excelled in all military exercises, was modest, prudent, and well informed. He soon attracted the jealousy of Galerius, who would have put him to death had he not escaped to his father in Britain; and now Galerius refused to allow him any higher title than that of Cæsar.
Maxentius, the son of the abdicated emperor Maximian, was also proclaimed Augustus by his soldiers, and prevailed upon his father once more to ascend the throne. Severus, who marched against them, was defeated and put to death; and Constantine now married Fausta, the daughter of Maximian. Galerius led a large army from the East, but was repulsed from Rome and retreated, leaving Maximian and his son masters of the capital. Galerius next associated Licinius with him in his power, and there were now six sovereigns upon the throne.
In A.D. 310, however, Maximian, having conspired against the life of Constantine, was put to death; Galerius died the next year; in A.D. 312 Maxentius fell before the arms of Constantine, and was drowned in the Tiber while attempting to make his escape. It was during this campaign that Constantine is said to have seen the miraculous cross in the heavens.
The Roman Senate paid unusual honors to Constantine; games and festivals were instituted in memory of his victory over Maxentius, and a triumphal arch was erected, whose imperfect architecture shows the decline of ancient taste. The Arch of Trajan was stripped of its ornaments to adorn that of Constantine.
The new emperor introduced good order into the administration of the West, revived the authority of the Senate, and disbanded the Prætorian Guards; he revoked the edicts against the Christians, and paid unusual deference to the bishops and saints of the Church. The Emperor Licinius, who had married his sister, in A.D. 313 defeated and put to death Maximin, so that the empire was now shared between Constantine and Licinius.
The former now summoned a council of bishops at Arles to suppress the heresy of the Donatists, but, before it met, was forced to march against Licinius, who had conspired against him. Licinius was defeated in two battles, and forced to give up a large part of his dominions to his conqueror. Constantine next defeated the Goths and Sarmatæ. Licinius had assumed the defense of Paganism, while Constantine raised the standard of the Cross. The last struggle between them took place near Adrianople; the Pagan army was defeated and put to flight, and in A.D. 324 Licinius was put to death. Thus Constantine reigned alone over the empire of Augustus.
At the famous Council of Nice, which met in A.D. 325, the doctrine of the Trinity was established, Arianism condemned, and at the same time the emperor was, in effect, acknowledged to be the spiritual head of the Church. But an event now occurred which must have destroyed forever the happiness of Constantine. He was induced to put to death his virtuous son Crispus, through the false accusations of his wife Fausta, and when afterward he discovered the falseness of the charges made against Crispus, he directed Fausta and her accomplices to be slain.
Rome, which had so long been the capital of the world, was now to descend from that proud position and become a provincial city. When Constantine returned to Rome after the Council of Nice, he found himself assailed with insults and execrations. The Senate and the people of the capital saw with horror the destroyer of their national faith, and they looked upon Constantine as accursed by the gods. The execution of his wife and son soon after increased the ill feeling against the emperor, and Constantine probably resolved to abandon a city upon which he had bestowed so many favors, and which had repaid him with such ingratitude. He was conscious, too, that Rome, seated in the heart of Italy, was no longer a convenient capital for his empire, and he therefore resolved to build a new city on the site of ancient Byzantium. The Bosphorus, a narrow strait, connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmora; and here, on a triangular piece of ground, inclosing on one side an excellent harbor, Constantine laid the foundations of his capital. It was situated in the forty-first degree of latitude, possessed a temperate climate, and a fertile territory around it; while, being placed on the confines of both Europe and Asia, it commanded the two divisions of the empire.
Constantinople was adorned with all the architectural elegance of the age, but the arts of sculpture and of decoration had so declined that Constantine was forced to rob the cities of Greece of their finest works in order to supply the deficiencies of his own artists: Athens and Asia were despoiled to adorn his semi-barbarous capital. The city was provided with a forum, in which was placed a column of porphyry upon a white marble base, in all one hundred and twenty feet high, upon which stood a bronze figure of Apollo. A hippodrome, or circus of great size, and the baths and pleasure-grounds, recalled the memory of those of Rome. Schools and theatres, aqueducts, fourteen churches, fourteen palaces, and a great number of magnificent private houses, added to the splendor of the new city. Constantine designed, it is said, to have called his capital the SECOND OR NEW ROME, but his own name has always been preferred.
Having thus provided a capital, Constantine next began to form a new constitution for his empire; he established, therefore, a complete despotism, all the power being lodged in the emperor, and all honors and titles being conferred by him alone. The name of Consul was still preserved, these officers being yearly appointed by the emperor; but we now notice the titles of Count and Duke joined with those of Quæstors and Proconsuls. All the civil magistrates were taken from the legal profession. The law was now the most honorable of the professions, and the law school at Berytus, in Phœnicia, had flourished since the reign of Alexander Severus.
The Roman Empire was divided into four great præfectures, which were themselves subdivided into dioceses and provinces. The præfectures were named that of the East, of Illyricum, of Italy, and of Gaul. A Prætorian Præfect had charge of each præfecture, and regulated its civil government; took care of the roads, ports, granaries, manufactures, coinage; was the supreme legal magistrate, from whose decision there was no appeal. Rome and Constantinople had their own Præfects, whose courts took the place of those of the ancient Prætors, while a considerable police force preserved the quiet of each city. The magistrates of the empire were divided into three classes, the Illustrissimi, or illustrious; the Spectabiles, or respectable; and the Clarissimi, or the honorable.
Constantine also made Christianity the established religion of the state, and appropriated a large portion of the revenues of the cities to the support of the churches and the clergy. His standing army was very large, but the ranks were now filled chiefly by barbarians, the Roman youth having lost all taste for arms. It is said the young men of Italy were in the habit of cutting off the fingers of the right hand in order to unfit themselves for military service.
In order to support this extensive system, Constantine was forced to impose heavy taxes upon his people. Every year the emperor subscribed with his own hand, in purple ink, the indiction, or tax levy of each diocese, which was set up in its principal city, and when this proved insufficient, an additional tax, or superindiction, was imposed. Lands, cattle, and slaves were all heavily taxed, and the declining agriculture of the empire was finally ruined by the exorbitant demands of the state. In Campania alone, once the most fertile part of Italy, one eighth of the whole province lay uncultivated, and the condition of Gaul seems to have been no better. Besides this, merchants, manufacturers, mechanics, and citizens were taxed beyond their power of endurance, while those who failed to pay were shut up in prison. Every fourth year these taxes on industry were levied, a period to which the people looked forward with terror and lamentation. Gifts were also demanded from the cities or provinces on various occasions, such as the accession of an emperor, the birth of an emperor's heir, the free gift of the city of Rome, for example, being fixed at about three hundred thousand dollars; and, in fine, the imperial despotism reduced the people to want, and hastened, even more than the inroads of the barbarians, the destruction of civil society.
Constantine in his old age adopted the luxury and pomp which Diocletian introduced from the East; he wore false hair of various colors carefully arranged, a diadem of costly gems, and a robe of silk embroidered with flowers of gold. His family, at an earlier period, consisted of Crispus, a son by his first wife Minervina, and the three sons of Fausta, Constantine, Constantius, and Constans. Besides these there were three daughters. Crispus, however, who was beloved by the people and the army, excited the jealousy of Fausta. Constantine was led to believe that his son was engaged in a conspiracy against his life, and Crispus was executed by his father's orders, together with Cæsar Licinius, the son of Constantine's favorite sister. Helena, the aged mother of Constantine, undertook to avenge her grandson. Fausta was finally proved to be unfaithful to her husband, and put to death, with many of her friends and followers. These fearful scenes within the palace recalled to the Roman people the memory of Nero and Caligula.
The three sons of Fausta were now the heirs of the throne, and, with their two cousins, Dalmatius and Hannibalianus, were carefully instructed by Christian professors, Greek philosophers, and Roman jurisconsults, the emperor himself teaching them the science of government and of man. They also studied the art of war in defending the frontiers of the empire; but no important war disturbed the last fourteen years of this reign. Constantine reigned thirty years, the longest period of any since Augustus; and he died May 22, A.D. 337, at his palace at Nicomedia, aged sixty-four years.
Constantine, although professing the Christian faith, was not baptized until a short time before his death, when he received that solemn rite with many professions of penitence, and of a desire to live in future according to the precepts of religion. He seems to have possessed many excellent qualities, was brave, active, and untiring, ruled with firmness, and gave a large portion of his time to the cares of state.