IN AD 373 OR THEREABOUTS, the commander of Roman military forces in North Africa (in Latin, comes Africae), one Romanus by name, was cashiered for provoking some of the Berber tribes settled on the fringes of the province to rebel. Theodosius, the field marshal (magister militum) sent to deal with the emergency, found amongst Romanus’ papers a highly incriminating document. It was a letter to the commander from a third party, which included the following greeting from a certain Palladius, until recently a senior imperial bureaucrat: ‘Palladius salutes you and says that he was dismissed from office for no other reason than that in the case of the people of Tripolis he spoke to the sacred ears [of the Emperor Valentinian I] what was not true.’1 On the strength of this, Palladius was dragged out of retirement from his country estates and frogmarched back to Trier. Lying to the emperor was treason. Rather than face interrogation, which in such cases routinely involved torture, Palladius committed suicide en route. The full story slowly emerged.

The trail led back to 363, when Romanus had first been appointed. The countryside around the town of Lepcis Magna in the province of Tripolitania had just been looted by Berber tribesmen from the neighbouring desert hinterland, and its inhabitants wanted Romanus to retaliate. He duly gathered his forces at Lepcis, but demanded logistic support to the tune of 4,000 camels, which the citizens refused to provide. Romanus thereupon dispersed his soldiers, and no campaign was mounted. The outraged citizens used their next annual provincial assembly, probably that of 364, to send an embassy of complaint to the emperor Valentinian. Romanus tried to head things off at the pass, getting his version of the story to Valentinian first via a relative called Remigius who was currentlymagister officiorum (something like the head of the Civil Service, one of the top bureaucrats of the western Empire). Valentinian refused to believe either version at first telling, and ordered a commission of inquiry. But it was slow to get moving, and in the meantime further Berber attacks prompted the townsfolk of Lepcis to send a second embassy to complain about Romanus’ continued inactivity. Hearing of yet more attacks, Valentinian lost his temper, and this is where Palladius enters the story. He was chosen to conduct a fact-finding mission, and was also given the job of taking with him gifts of cash for the African troops.2

Following the emperor’s orders, Palladius travelled to Lepcis and discovered for himself the truth about what Romanus had – or rather, had not – been up to. At the same time, however, Palladius was doing deals with the commanders and paymasters of African army units, which allowed him to keep for himself some of the imperial cash in his care. Everything was set up for a meeting of minds. Palladius threatened Romanus with a damning indictment of his inactivity, while Romanus brought up the small matter of Palladius’ embezzlement. In a devil’s bargain, Palladius kept the cash, and, back in Trier, told Valentinian that the inhabitants of Lepcis had nothing to complain of. The emperor, believing his time had been wasted, unleashed the full apparatus of the law on the plaintiffs of Lepcis. Palladius was sent to Africa a second time, to preside over the trials. With so much at stake for the judge, there could be only one outcome for the defendants. So a few witnesses were bribed, and agreed that there had never been any attacks; the loose ends were neatly sewn up, probably in 368, and one governor and three ambassadors were executed for making false statements to the emperor. There the matter rested until Palladius’ letter to Romanus came to light six years later. Two surviving ambassadors, who’d had the sense to go into hiding when sentenced to have their tongues cut out, then re-emerged from the woodwork to have their say. The affair duly claimed its final victims: Palladius, of course, and Romanus, not to mention the magister officiorum Remigius, and the false witnesses.

At first sight, there might seem nothing out of the ordinary here: negligence, embezzlement and a particularly nasty cover-up. What else would you expect of an imperial structure caught in a declining trajectory towards extinction? Ever since Gibbon, the corruption of public life has been part of the story of Roman imperial collapse. But while the fourth-century Empire had its fair share of corruption, it is important not to jump to conclusions. In sources of the time you can easily find examples of every kind of wrongdoing imaginable: from military commanders who artificially inflate manpower returns while keeping their units under strength so as to pocket the extra pay, to bureaucrats shuffling money around between different accounts until it becomes ‘lost’ in the paper trail and they can divert it to their own purposes.3 But whether any of this played a substantial role in the collapse of the western Empire is much more doubtful.

Uncomfortable as the idea might be, power has, throughout history, had a long and distinguished association with money making: in states both big and small, both seemingly healthy and on their last legs. In most past societies and many present ones, the link between power and profit was not even remotely problematic, profit for oneself and one’s friends being seen as the whole, and perfectly legitimate, point of making the effort to get power in the first place. When our old friend the philosopher Themistius started to attract the attention of the emperor Constantius in the early 350s, Libanius, a friend who taught rhetoric and was a great believer in the moral values of a classical education, wrote to him: ‘Your presence at [the emperor’s] table denotes a greater intimacy . . . anyone you mention is immediately better off, and . . . his pleasure in granting such favours exceeds yours in receiving them.’ For Libanius, Themistius’ new-found influence was not a problem: quite the reverse. In fact, the whole system of appointments to bureaucratic office within the Empire worked on personal recommendation. Since there were no competitive examinations, patronage and connection played a critical role. In more than one speech to different emperors, Themistius dwelt on the topic of ‘friends’, an emperor’s immediate circle who were responsible for bringing to his attention the names of suitable appointees for office. Certainly, Themistius wanted these friends to have powers of discernment, so that they would make first-class recommendations; but he had no desire to change things in any structural way. Nepotism was systemic, office was generally accepted as an opportunity for feathering one’s nest, and a moderate degree of peculation more or less expected.4

And this was nothing new. The early Roman Empire, even during its vigorous conquest period, was as much marked as were later eras by officials (friends of higher officials) misusing – or perhaps one should just say ‘using’ – power to profit themselves and their associates. According to the historian Sallust, writing in the mid-first century BC, Roman public life had been stripped of its moral fibre with the destruction of Carthage, its last major rival, in 146 BC. In fact, though, the great magnates of public life had always been preoccupied with self-advancement, and the early Empire had been no different. Much of what we might term ‘corruption’ in the Roman system merely reflects the normal relationship between power and profit. Some emperors, like Valentinian I, periodically made political capital out of cracking down on ‘corruption’, but even Valentinian made no attempt to change the system.5 To my mind, it is important to be realistic about the way human beings use political power, and not to attach too much importance to particular instances of corruption. Since the power-profit factor had not impeded the rise of the Empire in the first place, there is no reason to suppose that it contributed fundamentally to its collapse. In the Lepcis scandal, Romanus, Palladius and Remigius overstepped the mark. Looked at more closely, Lepcisgate offers us something much more than a good cover-up.

The Limits of Government

IN THEORY, the emperor was the supreme authority when it came to issuing general legislation, and in individual cases he had the right to modify the law, or break it, as he chose. He could condemn to death, or pardon, with a single word. To all appearances, he was an absolute monarch. But appearances can be deceptive.

Valentinian, a long-time soldier before his accession, had first-hand experience of supervising the Rhine frontier; based at Trier, he was close enough to investigate promptly any untoward incident. But a problem arising in Africa was a very different matter. The first Valentinian knew of the Lepcis episode was the sudden arrival at his court of two diametrically opposed accounts of it, one brought by the first legation from the provincial assembly, the other from Romanus via the magister officiorum, Remigius. Trier placed Valentinian about 2,000 kilometres away from the scene of the action. As he couldn’t leave the Rhine frontier to investigate one relatively minor incident in a rather obscure corner of North Africa, all he could do was send a representative to sort out the facts for him. If that person fed him misinformation, as was the case here, and ensured that no alternative account reached the imperial ears, the emperor was bound to act accordingly. The essential point that emerges from Lepcisgate is that, for all an emperor’s power, in both theory and practice, Roman central government could only make effective decisions when it received accurate information from the localities. The regime of Valentinian liked to style itself as the protector of the taxpayer from the unfair demands of the military. But, thanks to Palladius’ false report, the emperor’s actions in the case of Lepcis Magna had entirely the opposite effect.

A leap of imagination is required to grasp the difficulty of gathering accurate information in the Roman world. As ruler of just half of it, Valentinian was controlling an area significantly larger than the current European Union. Effective central action is difficult enough today on such a geographical scale, but the communication problems that Valentinian faced made it almost inconceivably harder for him than for his counterparts in modern Brussels. The problem was twofold: not only the slowness of ancient communications, but also the minimal number of lines of contact. The Lepcis problem was exacerbated not only by the snail’s pace of such communications as there were, but also by the sheer paucity of points of contact: two in the first instance (the ambassadors, plus Remigius representing Romanus’ view), supplemented by a third when Valentinian sent his fact-finding mission in the person of Palladius. Once Palladius verified Romanus’ view, that was two against one, and Valentinian had no additional sources of information. In the world of the telephone, the fax and the internet, the truth is much harder to hide. Beyond the immediate vicinity of his base on the Rhine frontier, Valentinian’s contacts with the city communities that made up his Empire were sparse and infrequent.

Insight into the problem is provided by another extraordinary survival from the later Roman Empire: papyrus documents preserved through the centuries by the dry heat of the Egyptian desert. (As fate would have it, most of the archive ended up in the John Rylands Library in Manchester, a city famous for its rainfall.) These particular papyri, purchased by the great Victorian collector A. S. Hunt in 1896, come from Hermopolis on the west bank of the Nile at the boundary between Upper and Lower Egypt. One key letter got separated from the rest, ending up in Strasbourg. When identified as part of the same collection, it became clear that these were the papers of a certain Theophanes, a landowner from Hermopolis and a fairly high-level Roman bureaucrat of the early fourth century. In the late 310s he was legal adviser to Vitalis who, as rationalis Aegypti, was the finance officer in charge of the arms factories and other operations of the Roman state in the province. The bulk of the archive refers to a journey Theophanes made from Egypt to Antioch (modern Antakya in southern Turkey, close to the Syrian border), a regional capital of the Roman east, on official business, sometime between 317 and 323. The papers don’t provide a narrative of the journey – we can only guess what the aim of the mission may have been – but something in its own way more valuable: packing lists, financial accounts and dated itineraries which, between them, bring Roman official travel vividly to life.6

Being on official business, Theophanes was able to use the same public transport system that carried Symmachus to Trier, the cursus publicus, which comprised neatly spaced way-stations combining stables – where official travellers could obtain a change of animals – and (sometimes) travel lodges. The most immediately striking documents are those dealing with Theophanes’ itineraries: daily listings of the distances he managed to cover. Having begun the journey to Antioch on 6 April at the town of Nikiu in Upper Egypt, he eventually rolled into the city three and a half weeks later on 2 May. His daily average had been about 40 kilometres: on the first part of the journey, through the Sinai desert, he made only about 24 kilometres a day, but speeded up to about 65 once he hit the Fertile Crescent. And on a breakneck final day into Antioch, scenting the finishing line, his party covered over a hundred. The return journey took a similar time. Bearing in mind that Theophanes’ official status allowed him to change horses whenever necessary – so there was no need to conserve equine energy – this gives us a benchmark for the bureaucratic operations of the Roman Empire. We know that in emergencies, galloping messengers, with many changes of horse, might manage as much as 250 kilometres a day. But Theophanes’ average on that journey of three and a half weeks was the norm: in other words, about 40, the speed of the oxcart. This was true of military as well as civilian operations, since all the army’s heavy equipment and baggage moved by this means too.

The other striking feature of Theophanes’ journey is its complexity. As might be expected, given such rates of travel, only the top echelons of the Roman bureaucracy tended to travel outside their immediate province – hence, lower-level officials wouldn’t know their counterparts, even in adjacent regions. Egypt, for most purposes, ran itself, so Theophanes didn’t usually need to know people in Antioch, and neither, for that matter, did he know people anywhere else en route. Vitalis armed him, accordingly, with letters of introduction to everyone who mattered on the way, some of which he didn’t use (which is how they come to survive in the archive). Given contemporary rules of etiquette, you had to think ahead and take with you a range of appropriate offerings: courtesy demanded that an exchange of gifts – sometimes valuable ones – inaugurate any new relationship. The accounts record items destined for such a fate, such as lungurion (coagulated lynx musk), an ingredient of expensive perfumes.7 Large amounts of cash also had to be carried, probably supplemented in Theophanes’ case by letters of authorization allowing him, as an official traveller, to draw funds from official sources. Hence such travellers would often need protection, hiring armed escorts where necessary. Theophanes’ accounts record food and drink bought for soldiers who accompanied them during the desert legs of the journey in Egypt.

The packing lists also make highly illuminating reading. Theophanes obviously needed a variety of attires: lighter and heavier clothing for variations in weather and conditions, his official uniform for the office, and a robe for the baths. The travel lodges of thecursus publicus were clearly very basic. The traveller brought along his own bedding – not just sheets, but even a mattress – and a complete kitchen to see to the food situation. As this suggests, Theophanes did not travel alone. We don’t know how many went with him, but he was clearly accompanied by a party of slaves who dealt with all the household tasks. He generally spent on their daily sustenance just under half of what he spent on his own. This battered bundle of papyrus documents at Manchester is full of such gems of detail. Just before leaving civilization to cross the desert again, the party bought 160 litres of wine for the home journey. This cost less than the two litres of a much rarer vintage that Theophanes had with his lunch on the same day. At another point, the accounts record the purchase of snow, used to cool the wine for dinner. What emerges is an arresting vision of the complex and cumbersome nature of official travel.

In reality, then, places were much further away from one another in the fourth century than they are now. As I sit here writing, it’s about 4,000 kilometres from Hadrian’s Wall to the Euphrates, and so it was in Theophanes’ day. But at Theophanes’ rate of progress – even giving him a higher average daily rate of 50 kilometres (not counting the days spent crossing the desert) – a journey that overland would now take a maximum of two weeks would in the fourth century have taken something close to three months. Looking at the map with modern eyes, we perceive the Roman Empire as impressive enough; looked at in fourth-century terms, it is staggering. Furthermore, measuring it in the real currency of how long it took human beings to cover the distances involved, you could say it was five times larger than it appears on the map. To put it another way, running the Roman Empire with the communications then available was akin to running, in the modern day, an entity somewhere between five and ten times the size of the European Union. With places this far apart, and this far away from his capital, it is hardly surprising that an emperor would have few lines of contact with most of the localities that made up his Empire.

Moreover, even if his agents had somehow maintained a continuous flow of intelligence from every town of the Empire into the imperial centre, there is little that he could have done with it anyway. All this putative information would have had to remain on bits of papyrus, and headquarters would soon have been buried under a mountain of paperwork. Finding any particular piece of information when required would have been virtually impossible, especially since Roman archivists seem to have filed only by year.8Primitive communication links combined with an absence of sophisticated means of processing information explain the bureaucratic limitations within which Roman emperors of all eras had to make and enforce executive decisions.

The main consequence of all this was that the state was unable to interfere systematically in the day-to-day running of its constituent communities. Not surprisingly, the range of business handled by Roman government was only a fraction of that of a modern state. Even if there had been ideologies to encourage it, Roman government lacked the bureaucratic capacity to handle broad-reaching social agendas, such as a health service or a social security budget. Pro-active governmental involvement was necessarily restricted to a much narrower range of operation: maintaining an effective army, and running the tax system. And, even in the matter of taxation, the state bureaucracy’s role was limited to allocating overall sums to the cities of the Empire and monitoring the transfer of monies. The difficult work – the allocation of individual tax bills and the actual collection of money – was handled at the local level. Even here, so long as the agreed tax-take flowed out of the cities and into the central coffers, local communities were left – as the municipal laws we examined in Chapter 1 imply – to be autonomous, largely self-governing communities.9 Keep Roman central government happy, and life could often be lived as the locals wanted.

This is a key to understanding much of the internal history of the Roman Empire. Lepcisgate illustrates not so much a particular problem of the later Empire, but the fundamental limitations affecting Roman central government of all eras. To comprehend the operation of government fully, the logistic impossibility of day-to-day interference from the centre must be considered alongside the imperial centre’s absolute legal power and unchallenged ideological domination. It was the interaction of these two phenomena that created the distinctive dynamic of the Roman Empire’s internal functioning. Given that it was administratively impossible for central government to control everything, anything to which it did add its stamp of authority carried an overwhelming legitimacy, if put to the test. What tended to happen, therefore, was that individuals and communities would invoke the authority of the centre for their own purposes. At first sight, this could suggest that the imperial finger was constantly being stuck into a whole host of local pies, but such an impression is misleading. Outside of taxation, emperors interfered in local affairs only when locals – or at least a faction of local opinion – saw an advantage to themselves in mobilizing imperial authority.

We have already seen this pattern at work in the early imperial period. As the Spanish inscriptions (pp. 38–9) show us, Roman-style towns existed right across the Empire as a consequence of local communities adopting municipal laws drawn up at the centre. In particular, the richer local landowners had quickly appreciated that securing a constitution with Latin rights was a path to Roman citizenship, which would qualify them to participate in the highly lucrative structures of Empire. The story had its shadier side, of course. A grant of Italian status was so valuable to the leaders of the community involved that they were willing to do whatever it took to win the privilege, often by courting patrons at the centre who would put in a good word for them with the emperor of the day. This kind of relationship between centre and locality was the bedrock on which the Empire was built.10

This relationship also applied to individuals who used the ‘rescript’ system. Rescripts allowed you to consult the emperor – in practice, his legal experts – on a matter of legal detail. Using the top half of a piece of papyrus, anyone could write to the emperor about an issue on which he wanted a decision. The emperor would then reply on the bottom half. You couldn’t use the system to get him to settle an entire case – only to raise a technical point of law that might dictate its outcome. Again, we’re indebted to a unique papyrus survival for an indication of how extensively the system was used. In the spring of AD 200, the emperors Severus and Caracalla were installed in the city of Alexandria in Egypt. A papyrus, now to be found at Columbia University, records that the emperors answered five rescripts (the replies were posted publicly) on 14 March, four on 15 March, and another four on the 20th.11 So even if we allow emperors lots of annual holidays, at least a thousand people a year could cite an imperial opinion in their private legal disputes.

Equally important, once a rescript had been sent back to the provinces, the emperor lost control over it, so a piece of paper carrying his name and his authority was on the loose. Hardly surprising, then, that these imperial replies were used in all kinds of unintended ways. The fifth-century Theodosian Code (see pp. 124-5) cites a number of scams: cases where the imperial answer had been physically detached from the original question and then used to answer another, others where letters extracted for one case had been applied to another, and still others where letters had been extracted under false pretences.12 Roman lawyers were as inventive as their modern counterparts, and subject to much less control. Not only does the rescript system show us an imperial authority that was essentially reactive, but abuses of it also make clear that distance could allow the suitor to make unintended use of the potent weapon represented by a legal ruling with the emperor’s name on it.

In addition to the rescript system, emperors were also deluged with requests of a more general kind, which they might or might not respond to positively. They could either launch their own inevitably slow investigation, or accept the petitioner’s inherently biased version of the truth. This usually meant the deployment of imperial power to more or less random effect: the emperor chose either to believe or not to believe the petitioner, and acted accordingly. The impact this had on day-to-day affairs depended upon the lengths that citizens in local communities would go to in order to exploit that power.

Any picture of Roman government, then, has to bear in mind that, for all their legal and ideological authority, emperors’ control was limited. All the same, such was their monopoly of authority that their approval was constantly being solicited by the citizenry. Consequently, the imperial centre was both powerful and strictly constrained.

IN THE MIDDLE years of the third century, this inherently limited governmental machine was suddenly forced to confront an entirely new range of problems, all traceable to the rise of Sasanian Persia. As we have seen, the immediate problem was solved by the military, fiscal and political restructuring of the Empire. It has long been customary to argue, however, that, while rescuing the Empire from these difficulties, the changes it put in place doomed it to decline and collapse in the longer term. After Diocletian, according to this view, the Roman agricultural economy was substantially overtaxed. Peasants were forced to surrender so much of their produce that some of them died from starvation. The new tax levels, it is argued, also ruined the landowning classes who had built and run the towns of the Empire since its formation. In fact, the whole imperial edifice came to be dominated by constraint rather than consent, symbolized in a repressive, bureaucratic machine staffed, as one influential view put it, by many ‘idle mouths’, a further burden on the taxpayer. On the military side, the enlarged army may have done its job in the short term; but manpower shortages within the Empire forced fourth-century emperors to draw increasingly on ‘barbarian’ recruits from across the frontier. As a result, the Roman army declined in both loyalty and efficiency. All in all, this line of argument goes, while the initial Persian crisis was overcome, it had required such an effort that the financial, political and even military strength of the Empire was visibly draining away.13

These views remain deeply entrenched. The present generation of scholarship has demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt, however, that such a stance greatly underestimates the economic, political and ideological vitality of the late Roman world.

The Price of Survival

ANCIENT AGRICULTURE suffered from two limitations. First, before the invention of tractors, the productivity of any piece of land was hugely dependent on how much labour was available to work it. Second, ancient farmers, while employing their own sophisticated techniques for maintaining fertility, were unable greatly to increase their output of foodstuffs in anything like the way that the use of chemical fertilizers has made possible in the modern era. This in turn acted as a brake on population levels, since human numbers tend to increase up to a limit imposed by the availability of food. In addition, transport was hugely expensive; Diocletian’s Prices Edict (see p. 65) records that a wagon of wheat doubled in price for every fifty miles it travelled. In these fundamental ways, the Roman economy was at every era trapped at not much above subsistence levels. Until very recently, scholars have been confident that the higher tax-take of the late Roman state aggravated these conditions to the extent that it became impossible for the Empire’s peasant population to maintain itself even at existing low levels.

The evidence comes mostly from written sources. To start with, the annual volume of inscriptions known from Roman antiquity declined suddenly in the mid-third century to something like one-fifth of previous levels. Since chances of survival remained pretty constant, this massive fall-off was naturally taken as an indicator that landowners, the social group generally responsible for commissioning these largely private inscriptions, had suddenly found themselves short of funds. A study of the chronology also led the heavier tax burden imposed by the late Roman state to be seen as the primary cause, since the decline coincided with the tax hikes that were necessary to fight off the increased Persian threat. Such views were reinforced by other sources documenting another well known fourth-century phenomenon, commonly known as the ‘flight of the curials’. Curials (or decurions) were the landowners of sufficient wealth to get a seat on their town councils (Latin, curiae). They were the descendants of the men who had built the Roman towns, bought into classical ideologies of self-government, learned Latin, and generally benefited from Latin rights and Roman citizenship in the early imperial period. In the fourth century, these descendants became increasingly unwilling to serve on the town councils their ancestors had established. Some of the sources preserve complaints about the costs involved in being a councillor, others about the administrative burden imposed upon the curials by the Roman state. It has long been part of the orthodoxy of Roman collapse, therefore, that the old landowning classes of the Empire were overburdened into oblivion.14

Other fourth-century legal texts refer to a previously unknown phenomenon, the ‘deserted lands’ (agri deserti). Most of these texts are very general, giving no indication of the amounts of land that might be involved, but one law, of AD 422, referring to North Africa, indicates that a staggering 3,000 square miles fell into this category in that region alone. A further run of late Roman legislation also attempted to tie certain categories of tenant farmers (coloni) to their existing estates, to prevent them moving. It was easy, in fact irresistible, to weave these separate phenomena into a narrative of cause and effect, whereby the late Empire’s punitive tax regime made it uneconomic to farm all the land that had previously been under cultivation. This was said to have generated large-scale abandonment – hence the agri deserti – as well as governmental intervention to try to prevent this very abandoning of the lands that the new tax burden had made uneconomic. Stripped of a larger portion of their production, the peasantry could not maintain their numbers over the generations, which further lowered output.15

Into this happy consensus a large bomb was lobbed, towards the end of the 1950s, by a French archaeologist named Georges Tchalenko. As with many revolutionary moments, it took a long time for bystanders to realize that they had witnessed something earth-shattering, but this bomb set off a chain of detonations. Tchalenko had spent much of the 1940s and 1950s roaming the limestone hills in what is now a fairly obscure (and relatively peaceful) corner of the Middle East. In antiquity, these hills belonged to the rural hinterland of one of the great imperial capitals, Antioch: Antakya in modern Turkey. (The hills, by a quirk of fate, have ended up over the border in northern Syria.) In his explorations, Tchalenko came across the remains of a dense spread of villages, sturdily constructed from limestone blocks, which had been abandoned in the eighth to ninth centuries after the Arab conquest of the region.

The villages showed that these hills had once been the home of a flourishing rural population, which could afford not only to build excellent houses, but to endow their villages with sizeable public buildings. This ancient population was much denser than anything the region has supported at any point since, and it clearly made its living from agriculture; Tchalenko believed it produced olive oil commercially. The really revolutionary bit was Tchalenko’s discovery that prosperity first hit the region in the later third and early fourth centuries, then continued into the fifth, sixth and seventh with no sign of decline. At the very moment when the generally accepted model suggested that the late Roman state was taxing the lifeblood out of its farmers, here was hard evidence of a farming region prospering.16

Further archaeological work, using field surveys, has made it possible to test levels of rural settlement and agricultural activity across a wide geographical spread and at different points in the Roman period. Broadly speaking, these surveys have confirmed that Tchalenko’s Syrian villages were a far from unique example of late Roman rural prosperity. The central provinces of Roman North Africa (in particular Numidia, Byzacena and Proconsularis) saw a similar intensification of rural settlement and production at this time. This has been illuminated by separate surveys in Tunisia and southern Libya, where prosperity did not even begin to fall away until the fifth century. Surveys in Greece have produced a comparable picture. And elsewhere in the Near East, the fourth and fifth centuries have emerged as a period of maximum rural development – not minimum, as the orthodoxy would have led us to expect. Investigations in the Negev Desert region of modern Israel have shown that farming also flourished in this deeply marginal environment under the fourth-century Empire. The pattern is broadly similar in Spain and southern Gaul, while recent re-evaluations of rural settlement in Roman Britain have suggested that its fourth-century population reached levels that would only be seen again in the fourteenth. Argument continues as to what figure to put on this maximum, but that late Roman Britain was remarkably densely populated by ancient and medieval standards is now a given.17 The only areas, in fact, where, in the fourth century, prosperity was not at or close to its maximum for the entire Roman period were Italy and some of the northern European provinces, particularly Gallia Belgica and Germania Inferior on the Rhine frontier. Even here, though, estimates of settlement density have been revised substantially upwards in recent years.

For the poverty of the latter two northern provinces, the explanation probably lies in third-century disruption. The Rhine frontier region was being heavily raided at the same time as so much energy was being poured into solving the Persian problem, and it may be that rural affluence in parts of the region never recovered. A methodological problem may also provide at least part of the explanation. Roman-period surveys rely on datable finds of commercially produced pottery to identify and date settlements. If a population ceased to import these wares, reverting to undatable locally made ceramics, especially if at the same time they were also building more in wood than in the traditional Roman stone, brick and tile – which surveys also find – then they would have become archaeologically invisible. This was happening in several areas of northern Europe by at least the mid-fifth century, so it is far from impossible that the seeming lack of fourth-century inhabitants in parts of the northern Rhine frontier region was caused not by substantial population decline, but by the first appearance of these new habits. The jury is still out.

The case of Italy is rather different. As befitted the heartland of a conquest state, Italy was thriving in the early imperial period. Not only did the spoils of conquest flood its territories, but its manufacturers of pottery, wine and other goods sold them throughout the western provinces and dominated the market. Also, Italian agricultural production was untaxed. As the economies of the conquered provinces developed, however, this early domination was curtailed by the development of rival enterprises closer to the centres of consumption and with much lower transport costs. By the fourth century, the process had pretty much run its course; and from Diocletian onwards, Italian agriculture had to pay the same taxes as the rest of the Empire. So the peninsula’s economy was bound to have suffered relative decline in the fourth century, and it is not surprising to find more marginal lands there being taken out of production. But as we have seen, the relative decline of Italy and perhaps also of north-eastern Gaul was more than compensated for by economic success elsewhere. Despite the heavier tax burden, the late Roman countryside was generally booming.18 The revolutionary nature of these findings cannot be overstated.

Looked at with this in mind, the literary evidence is far from incompatible with the archaeology. The laws forcing labour to stay in one place, for example, would only have been enforceable where rural population levels were relatively high. Otherwise, the general demand for labour would have seen landowners competing with one another for peasants, and being willing to take in each other’s runaways and protect them from the law. More generally, the term ‘deserted lands’ (agri deserti) was coined in the fourth century to describe lands from which no tax was being collected. It carries no necessary implication that land so labelled had ever previously been cultivated, and certainly the large tract of North African territory referred to in the law of 422 consisted mostly of desert and semi-desert hinterland where normal agriculture had always been impossible. Nor is the late Empire’s more demanding tax regime incompatible with a buzzing agricultural economy. Tenant subsistence farmers tend to produce only what they need: enough to provide for themselves and their dependants and to pay any essential additional dues such as rent. Within this context there will often be a certain amount of economic ‘slack’, consisting of extra foodstuffs they could produce but which they choose not to because they can neither store them, nor, thanks to high transport costs, sell them. In this kind of world, taxation – if not imposed at too high a level – can actually increase production: the tax imposed by the state is another due that has to be satisfied, and farmers do sufficient extra work to produce the additional output. Only if taxes are set so high that peasants starve, or the long-term fertility of their lands is impaired, will such dues have a damaging economic effect.

None of this means that it was fun to be a late Roman peasant. The state imposed heavier demands on him than it had on his ancestors, and he was prevented by law from moving around in search of the best tenancy terms. But there is nothing in the archaeological or written evidence to gainsay the general picture of a late Roman countryside at or near maximum levels of population, production and output.19

There is, however, no doubt that most cities of the Empire appear to have suffered in one respect. The decline in inscriptions from the mid-third century reflects a fall in the number of new public buildings being commissioned. The only cities that continued to see public building on a large scale were the central and regional capitals of the Roman state. And even here, instead of local grandees endowing their towns with another memorial toilet block (or some such structure) in their own memory, buildings were being erected by state officials using state funds.20 The private funding of public building in one’s hometown belonged to the very early imperial period, when this constituted the prime route to self-promotion. Putting up the right kinds of public building was part of persuading some high official to recommend your hometown to the emperor for the grant of a Roman constitution. Once your town had Latin rights, then financing buildings became a strategy for winning power and influence within it. The towns of the Empire quickly built up endowments of publicly owned land (often from wills), and also acquired the right to levy local taxes and tolls, in itself a substantial annual income whose expenditure was controlled by the town council and particularly by its leading magistrates. Magistrates were voted into office by a town’s free citizens. Competitive local building in this context was all about winning elections and hence controlling the use of local funds.21

The confiscation by the state of local endowments and taxes in the third century removed most of the fun from local government. By the fourth, there was little point in spending freely to win power in your hometown, if all you then got to do was run errands for central government. By this time, retired members of the expanding class of imperial bureaucrats (honorati) were being given all the interesting and prestigious tasks in local government, including the detailed allocation of their town’s tax burden. Nothing would be more guaranteed to generate invitations to dinner and other small marks of attention than the knowledge that, when the time came, you were going to be in charge of setting the new tax bills. Honorati also got to sit with the provincial governor when he was trying legal cases, and helped him arrive at verdicts. As the many surviving letters to local honorati make clear, this was another moment when great influence could be brought to bear, and, again, it tended to make the honoratus very popular in local society. What happened in the late Empire, in other words, was a major shift in local political power away from town councils to imperial bureaucrats. This did away with the whole point of the local displays of generosity recorded in the early imperial inscriptions.

The stock image of the late Roman bureaucracy also needs revising. Much of its characterization as an oppressive alien force of ‘idle mouths’ sucking the vitality out of local society can be traced back to a speech of the rhetor Libanius, which catalogued the dubious social origins of some of the leading bureaucrats and senators of mid-fourth-century Constantinople. Three Praetorian Prefects (chief civilian executive officers) of the 350s and early 360s – Domitianus, Helpidius and Taurus – had fathers, Libanius tells us, who personally engaged in manual labour; the father of a fourth, Philippus, made sausages, and the governor of the province of Asia, Dulcitius, was the son of a fuller.22 The image conjured up of a bureaucracy dominated by new men from nowhere is very powerful, but in this speech Libanius had a very particular axe to grind. The Senate of Constantinople had just refused membership to one of his protégés, a certain Thalassius, on the grounds that Thalassius’ father was a ‘tradesman’ (he had owned an arms factory). As a vast body of other evidence makes clear (including endless letters of reference written by Libanius himself), however, the vast majority of the new bureaucrats and senators of the fourth-century Empire were actually drawn from the curial classes, not from further down the social scale. The language of this bureaucracy was the ‘correct’ Latin and Greek espoused by the traditional educational curriculum. This tells us instantly that its members had benefited from a lengthy and expensive private education. The bureaucracy of the late Roman period did not consist of outsiders or parvenus, then, but of town councillors who had renegotiated their position within the changing structures of Empire. Only a small hard-headed inner elite – called principales in Latin – stayed on the councils in order to monopolize the few interesting jobs left.

Because bureaucratic positions were so attractive, emperors were flooded with requests for appointments. Many of these were granted. Emperors always liked to raise their popularity ratings by appearing generous, and these kinds of grants seemed, individually, pretty harmless. Despite the laws attempting to regulate bureaucratic expansion by forcing ex-town councillors back to their cities, by AD 400 large numbers of wealthy landowners were making the central imperial bureaucracy the main focus of their careers. At this date, the eastern financial office (the largitionales) had a staff of 224 officers, and a waiting list of 610 ready to take their places when they finished their stint. And, because of the delay involved in getting a post under these conditions, parents were appending their children’s names to waiting lists at birth. Thus, far from showing the power of a newly oppressive central state, the rise of the imperial bureaucracy demonstrates the continuation of the same kind of political relationship between centre and locality that we have already observed. Here again, as in the rescript system and in the whole process of Romanization itself, the state certainly started the ball rolling by setting up a new rule book, as it were. But the process was taken over by locals responding to the rule changes and adapting them to their own interests.

Understanding bureaucratic expansion in this way makes it impossible to see the ‘flight of the curials’ as fundamentally an economic phenomenon, or, at least, as reflecting a decline in the private fortunes of the landowning class. It also takes much of the sting out of the argument that the bureaucracy were so many ‘idle mouths’. It is hard to suppose that these bureaucrats’ ancestors, as local landowners sitting on town councils, had been any less ‘idle’ – if one chooses to see them this way. They had always been essentially a rentier class, overseeing the labour of their peasants rather than engaging in the primary work of agricultural production. But whereas before they had been ‘idling’ on their town councils, now they were idling in the offices of the central Roman state. Their salaries, paid by the state, were also very low. Bureaucratic expansion needed little extra taxation to fund.23 What made the jobs attractive, as we have seen, was the status that accompanied them and the chance to charge fees to those who needed your services.

While these changes in upper-class career patterns certainly had some economic effects, there is nothing to suggest that upper-class life changed in any fundamental way. Written sources and archaeological excavation both confirm that the late Roman landowning elite, like their forebears, would alternate between their urban houses and their country estates. Fourth-century Antioch, for instance, boasted the hugely wealthy suburb of Daphne, and extensive investigations at the city of Sardis in modern Turkey have uncovered numerous wealthy private houses of the fourth and fifth centuries. There is no reason to suppose, therefore, that luxury urban trades, which depended on landowners coming to ‘town’ from time to time to spend their wealth, will have suffered very much. What may have happened is that the reorientation away from town councils to an imperial bureaucracy meant that larger landowners maintained houses in regional and provincial imperial capitals rather than in their hometowns. This would have increased the tendency – already noticed in patterns of public spending – for capitals to prosper at the expense of lesser towns.24

What the new evidence and the consequent reinterpretations of the old evidence have demonstrated, then, is that although, in order to meet the strategic challenge posed by Persia, the state was taking a bigger share of agricultural output in tax and had confiscated local city funds, agriculture itself, the main engine of the economy, was not in crisis, nor was the fate of the landowning classes as bleak as traditionally supposed. The ‘flight of the curials’ was an adjustment, if a major one, in the location of political power. Old arguments that fifth-century political collapse was the result of fourth-century economic crisis cannot, therefore, be sustained.

There is also more than enough here to prompt a rethink about claims that, from the mid-third century, the army was so short of Roman manpower that it jeopardized its efficiency by drawing ever increasingly on ‘barbarians’. There is no doubt that the restructured Roman army did recruit such men in two main ways. First, self-contained contingents were recruited on a short-term basis for particular campaigns, returning home once they were over. Second, many individuals from across the frontier entered the Roman army and took up soldiering as a career, serving for a working lifetime in regular Roman units. Neither phenomenon was new. The auxiliary forces, both cavalry and infantry (alae and cohortes), of the early imperial army had always been composed of non-citizens, and amounted to something like 50 per cent of the military. It is impossible to know much about recruiting patterns among the rank and file, but nothing about the officer corps of the late Empire suggests that barbarian numbers had increased across the army as a whole. The main difference between early and late armies lay not in their numbers, but in the fact that barbarian recruits now sometimes served in the same units as citizens, rather than being segregated into auxiliary forces. Training in the fourth century remained pretty much as fierce as ever, producing bonded groups ready to obey orders. From Ammianus Marcellinus’ picture of the army in action we find no evidence that its standards of discipline had fallen in any substantial way, or that the barbarians in its ranks were less inclined to obey orders or any more likely to make common cause with the enemy. He records one incident in which a recently retired barbarian let slip some important intelligence about Roman army dispositions, but none showed disloyalty in combat. There is no sign, in short, that the restructuring of the Empire had important knock-on effects in the military sphere.25 It is entirely possible, nonetheless, that the extra costs incurred in the running of the fourth-century Empire could have alienated the loyalty of the provincial populations that had bought into the values of Romanness with such vigour under the early Empire.

Christianity and Consent

WITH THE EMPEROR Constantine’s conversion to Christianity in 312, the old ideological structures of the Roman world also began to be dismantled, and for Edward Gibbon this was a key moment in the story of Roman collapse:

The clergy successfully preached the doctrines of patience and pusillanimity; the active virtues of society were discouraged; and the last remains of the military spirit were buried in the cloister; a large portion of public and private wealth was consecrated to the specious demands of charity and devotion; and the soldiers’ pay was lavished on the useless multitudes of both sexes, who could only plead the merits of abstinence and chastity. Faith, zeal, curiosity, and the more earthly passions of malice and ambition kindled the flame of theological discord; the church, and even the state, were distracted by religious factions, whose conflicts were sometimes bloody, and always implacable; the attention of emperors was diverted from camps to synods; the Roman world was oppressed by a new species of tyranny; and the persecuted sects became the secret enemies of their country.26

Others have not been so strident. But the notion that Christianity broke up ideological unity and hindered the ability of the state effectively to win support has since been shared by others; so too the fear that the Church diverted financial and human resources from vital material ends. The issues of both taxation and the rise of Christianity thus raise the more general question of whether it was against a backdrop of local discontent that the reconstructed imperial authority struggled to maintain its legitimacy.

Fourth-century sources make occasional complaints about tax rates. There was also one major tax riot. In Antioch in 387, a crowd gathered to protest about the imposition of a supertax. The mood got ugly, and imperial statues were toppled. Imperial images, like everything else to do with emperors, were sacred, and assaults on them an act of treason. The local community was terrified that army units might be turned loose on the city in punishment, but the reigning emperor, Theodosius I, took a conciliatory line to resolve the crisis. And this is a fair enough indicator of the general climate.27 Tax collection goes more smoothly, and rates can be increased more easily, if taxpayers understand and broadly accept the reasons for which they are being taxed. Fourth-century emperors perfectly understood the principle of consent, and never lost an opportunity to stress that taxation paid above all for the army – which was true – and that the army was necessary to defend Roman society from outside threats. Most of the ceremonial occasions of the imperial year involved a keynote speech lasting about an hour whose purpose was to celebrate the regime’s recent successes. Hardly any of our surviving late imperial examples fail to make some reference to the army and its function of protector of the Roman world.

Different emperors sold their frontier policies in different ways, but there was no disagreement on this basic purpose of taxation. The population was daily reminded of the point on its coinage: one of the most common designs featured an enemy grovelling at the emperor’s feet. On the down side, military failings might be criticized for wasting the taxpayers’ contributions. In one famous incident, Ursulus, chief financial minister of the emperor Constantius II, complained sarcastically and publicly about the performance of the army on a visit to the ruins of Amida, shortly after the Persians sacked it in 359: ‘Look at the courage with which the cities are defended by our soldiers, for whose huge salary bills the wealth of the Empire is already barely sufficient.’ The generals didn’t forget this. When Constantius died, part of the price paid by his successor for their support was the condemnation to death of Ursulus in the political trials that marked the change of regime. For the most part, however, the system worked tolerably well; the Antioch tax riot is an isolated example, which was caused, notice, not by the usual taxes but by an additional imposition. While, of course, many landowners sought to minimize their tax bills – the laws and letter collections are full of uncovered scams and requests for dispensations to this effect – fourth-century emperors did manage to sell to their population the idea that taxation was essential to civilized life, and generally collected the funds without ripping their society apart.28

On the religious front Constantine’s conversion to Christianity certainly unleashed a cultural revolution. Physically, town landscapes were transformed as the practice of keeping the dead separate from the living, traditional in Graeco-Roman paganism, came to an end, and cemeteries sprang up within town walls. Churches replaced temples; as a consequence, from the 390s onwards there was so much cheap second-hand marble available that the new marble trade all but collapsed. The Church, as Gibbon claimed, attracted large donations both from the state and from individuals. Constantine himself started the process, the Book of the Popes lovingly recording his gifts of land to the churches of Rome, and, over time, churches throughout the Empire acquired substantial assets. Furthermore, Christianity was in some senses a democratizing and equalizing force. It insisted that everybody, no matter what his economic or social status, had a soul and an equal stake in the cosmic drama of salvation, and some Gospel stories even suggested that worldly wealth was a barrier to salvation. All this ran contrary to the aristocratic values of Graeco-Roman culture, with its claim that true civilization could only be attained by the man with enough wealth and leisure to afford many years of private education and active participation in municipal affairs. Take also, for instance, the grammarians’ traditional use of the veil. In antiquity, a veil marked the entrance to higher places, as in the monumental audience halls where the imperial presence was normally veiled from the main body of the court. St Augustine dismissed with contempt in his Confessions the grammarians’ use of veils to cover the entrances to their schools. For him and other late Roman Christians, the practice came to be dismissed as a false claim to wisdom.

Instead, fourth-century Christian intellectuals set up in their writings a deliberately non-classical anti-hero, the uneducated Christian Holy Man, who, despite not having passed through the hands of the grammarian, and despite characteristically abandoning the town for the desert, achieved heights of wisdom and virtue that went far beyond anything that could be learned from Homer or Vergil, or even from participating in self-government. The Holy Man was the best-case product of the monastery – as Gibbon pointed out, Christian monasticism attracted a substantial number of recruits at this time. The monastic lifestyle was extravagantly praised by highly educated Christians, who saw in its strictures a level of devotion equivalent to that of the Christian martyrs of old. Nor does it take much sifting through the sources to find examples of high-status Christians rejecting participation in the normal practices of Roman upper-class life. In Italy, around the turn of the fifth century, within a few years of one another, the moderately wealthy Paulinus of Nola and a staggeringly wealthy senatorial heiress, Melania the younger, both liquidated their fortunes and embraced lives of Christian devotion. Paulinus became a bishop, devoting himself to the cult of the martyr Felix, while Melania took herself off to the Holy Land. Thus Christianity asked awkward questions of, and forced some substantial revisions in, many of the attitudes and practices that Romans had long taken for granted.29

But while the rise of Christianity was certainly a cultural revolution, Gibbon and others are much less convincing in claiming that the new religion had a seriously deleterious effect upon the functioning of the Empire. Christian institutions did, as Gibbon asserts, acquire large financial endowments. On the other hand, the non-Christian religious institutions that they replaced had also been wealthy, and their wealth was being progressively confiscated at the same time as Christianity waxed strong. It is unclear whether endowing Christianity involved an overall transfer of assets from secular to religious coffers. Likewise, while some manpower was certainly lost to the cloister, this was no more than a few thousand individuals at most, hardly a significant figure in a world that was maintaining, even increasing, population levels. Similarly, the number of upper-class individuals who renounced their wealth and lifestyles for a life of Christian devotion pales into insignificance beside the 6,000 or so who by AD 400 were actively participating in the state as top bureaucrats. In legislation passed in the 390s, all of these people were required to be Christian. For every Paulinus of Nola, there were many more newly Christianized Roman landowners happy to hold major state office, and no sign of any crisis of conscience among them.

Nor was there any pressing reason why Christianity should have generated such a crisis, since religion and Empire rapidly reached an ideological rapprochement. Roman imperialism had claimed, since the time of Augustus, that the presiding divinities had destined Rome to conquer and civilize the world. The gods had supported the Empire in a mission to bring the whole of humankind to the best achievable state, and had intervened directly to choose and inspire Roman emperors. After Constantine’s public adoption of Christianity, the long-standing claims about the relation of the state to the deity were quickly, and surprisingly easily, reworked. The presiding divinity was recast as the Christian God, and the highest possible state for humankind was declared to be Christian conversion and salvation. Literary education and the focus on self-government were shifted for a while to the back burner, but by no means thrown out. And that was the sum total of the adjustment required. The claim that the Empire was God’s vehicle, enacting His will in the world, changed little: only the nomenclature was different. Likewise, while emperors could no longer be deified, their divine status was retained in Christian-Roman propaganda’s portrayal of God as hand-picking individual emperors to rule with Him, and partly in His place, over the human sphere of His cosmos. Thus, the emperor and everything about him, from his bedchamber to his treasury, could continue to be styled as ‘sacred’.30

These were not claims asserted merely by a few loyalists in and around the imperial court. On Christmas Day 438, a new compendium of recent Roman law, the Theodosian Code (Codex Theodosianus), was presented to the assembled senators in the old imperial capital. All senatorial meetings were fully minuted and the minutes passed on to the emperor. Not surprisingly, these records have not survived; the piles of verbiage would not have made wildly exciting reading for medieval or even late Roman copyists. The minutes of the Theodosian Code meeting were, however, incorporated into the Preface to official copies of the Code made after 443. A single eleventh-century manuscript deriving from one such official copy is preserved in the Ambrosian Library at Milan. Such is the slender thread by which this unique text survived.31 The Praetorian Prefect of Italy, Glabrio Faustus, who presided, and in whose palatial home the senators had gathered, opened the meeting by formally introducing the text to the assembly. After reminding his audience of the original edict that had established the law commission, he presented the Code to them. In response, the assembled senators let rip at the tops of their voices:

‘Augustuses of Augustuses, the greatest of Augustuses!’32 (repeated 8 times)

‘God gave You to us! God save You for us!’ (27 times)

‘As Roman Emperors, pious and felicitous, may You rule for many years!’ (22 times)

‘For the good of the human race, for the good of the Senate, for the good of the State, for the good of all!’ (24 times)

‘Our hope is in You, You are our salvation!’ (26 times)

‘May it please our Augustuses to live forever!’ (22 times)

‘May You pacify the world and triumph here in person!’ (24 times)

The repetition of these acclamations seems extraordinary to us, but the message conveyed by this ceremony is worth careful consideration.

Its most obvious message was Unity. The great and good of the Roman world were speaking with one voice in praise of their imperial rulers in the city that was still its symbolic capital. Only slightly less obvious, when you stop to think about it, is the second message: the confidence of the senators in the Perfection of the Social Order of which they and their emperors were symbiotic parts. You can’t have complete Unity without an equally complete sense of Perfection. The normal state of human beings is disunity. The only things that people can be of one mind about are those that are self-evidently the best. And, as the opening acclamations make clear, the source of that Perfection was, straightforwardly, God, the Christian deity. By 438, the Senate of Rome was a thoroughly Christian body. At the top end of Roman society, the adoption of Christianity thus made no difference to the age-old contention that the Empire was God’s vehicle in the world.

The same message was proclaimed at similar ceremonial moments all the way down the social scale, even within Church circles. Town council meetings always began with similar acclamations, as did formal gatherings of an entire urban populus to greet an emperor, an imperial official or even a new imperial image. (When a new emperor was elected, images of him were distributed to the cities of the Empire.) At all of these moments – and there were many in a calendar year – the same key idea predominated.33Many Christian bishops, as well as secular commentators, were happy to restate the old claim of Roman imperialism in its new clothing. Bishop Eusebius of Caesarea was already arguing, as early as the reign of Constantine, that it was no accident that Christ had been incarnated during the lifetime of Augustus, the first Roman emperor. Despite the earlier history of persecutions, went his argument, this showed that Christianity and the Empire were destined for each other, with God making Rome all-powerful so that, through it, all mankind might eventually be saved.

This ideological vision implied, of course, that the emperor, as God’s chosen representative on earth, should wield great religious authority within Christianity. As early as the 310s, within a year of the declaration of his new Christian allegiance, bishops from North Africa appealed to Constantine to settle a dispute that was raging among them. This established a pattern for the rest of the century: emperors were now intimately involved in both the settlement of Church disputes and the much more mundane business of the new religion’s adminstration. To settle disputes, emperors called councils, giving bishops the right to use the privileged travel system, the cursus publicus, in order to attend. Even more impressively, emperors helped set the agendas to be discussed, their officials orchestrated the proceedings, and state machinery was used to enforce the decisions reached. More generally, they made religious law for the Church – Book 16 of the Theodosian Code is entirely concerned with such matters – and influenced appointments to top ecclesiastical positions.

The Christian Church hierarchy also came to mirror the Empire’s administrative and social structures. Episcopal dioceses reflected the boundaries of city territories (some even preserve them to this day, long after they have lost all other meaning). Further up the scale, the bishops of provincial capitals were turned into metropolitan archbishops, enjoying powers of intervention in the new, subordinate sees. Under Constantine’s Christian successors, the previously obscure Bishop of Constantinople was elevated into a Patriarch on a par with the Bishop of Rome – because Constantinople was the ‘new Rome’. Very quickly, too, local Christian communities lost the power to elect their own bishops. From the 370s onwards, bishops were increasingly drawn from the landowning classes, and controlled episcopal successions by discussions among themselves. With the Church now so much a part of the state – bishops had even been given administrative roles within it, such as running small-claims courts – to become a Christian bishop was not to drop out of public life but to find a new avenue into it. If the Christianization of Roman society is a massively important topic, an equally important, and somewhat less studied one, is the Romanization of Christianity. The adoption of the new religion was no one-way street, but a process of mutual adaptation that reinforced the ideological claims of emperor and state.34

None of this is to say, of course, that the Christianization of the Empire was achieved without conflict, or that Christianity and the Empire were perfectly suited to one another. Like Paulinus of Nola and Melania, some bishops and other Christian intellectuals, not to mention Holy Men, explicitly or implicitly rejected the claim that the Empire represented a perfect, God-sustained civilization. But rejection of the Empire was little more than an undertone among fourth-century Christian thinkers. The fourth century was also a crucial moment in the formation of Christian doctrine, a process that generated many inner Christian conflicts into which a succession of emperors was drawn to one side or the other. Conflict over doctrine was for the most part confined, however, to the bishops. There were a few moments when it spilled over into large-scale rioting, but it was never widespread or sustained enough to suggest that Christians’ capacity to disagree with one another caused any serious damage to the functioning of the Empire.35

What the rise of Christianity really demonstrates, like the creation of the newly enlarged bureaucracy, is that the imperial centre had lost none of its capacity to draw local elites into line. As much recent writing on Christianization has emphasized, religious revolution was achieved more by trickle-down effect than by outright confrontation. Until the end of the fourth century, seventy years after Constantine first declared his new religious allegiance, the perception that emperors might show more favour to Christians in promotions to office was what spread the new religion among the Roman upper classes. All Christian emperors faced intense lobbying from the bishops, and all made highly Christian noises from time to time. Also, from an early date they banned blood sacrifices, which were particular anathema to Christians. Other pagan cult practices were allowed, though, and there was no imperial mechanism to enforce Christianity at the local level. This meant that, as in everything except taxation, the preference of the citizens decided what actually happened on the ground. Where the bulk of critical opinion was, or became, Christian, pagan temples were closed and sometimes dismantled. Where it remained true to the old cults, religious life continued much as before, and Christian emperors were happy enough to allow the variety. It was only when a critical mass of important local decision-makers had already become Christian towards the end of the century, after three generations of imperial sponsorship, that emperors could safely enact more aggressively Christianizing measures.36

The imperial centre thus retained enough ideological force and practical power of patronage for a more or less uninterrupted run of Christian rulers over three or four generations to bring local opinion largely into line with the new ideology (Julian the Apostate ruled the whole Empire as a pagan for less than two years). To my mind, a similar dynamic was at work here as in the earlier process of Romanization. The state was unable simply to force its ideology on local elites, but if it was consistent in making conformity a condition for advancement, then landowners would respond. As the fourth century progressed, ‘Christian and Roman’ – rather than ‘villa and town dwelling’ – were increasingly the prerequisites of success, and the movers and shakers of Roman society, both local and central, gradually adapted themselves to the new reality. As with the expansion of the bureaucracy, the imperial centre had successfully deployed new mechanisms for keeping the energies and attentions of the landowning classes focused upon itself.

Taxes were paid, elites participated in public life, and the new religion was effectively enough subsumed into the structures of the late Empire. Far from being the harbingers of disaster, both Christianization and bureaucratic expansion show the imperial centre still able to exert a powerful pull on the allegiances and habits of the provinces. That pull had to be persuasive rather than coercive, but so it had always been. Renegotiated, the same kinds of bonds continued to hold centre and locality together.

The Roman Polity

THE FIRST IMPRESSION given by Roman state ceremonies such as the one held to introduce the Theodosian Code to the Roman Senate is one of overwhelming power. A state machine that could make an assemblage of its richest landowners engage in such a spectacle of synchronized acclamation is not to be trifled with. But there are other aspects of the Theodosian Code ceremony, as well as the law-book’s reception, that give us a rather different insight – this time, into the political limitations, which, for all its continued strength, lay at the heart of the Roman imperial system.

After their rousing introduction, the assembled Roman fathers get down to the nitty-gritty:

‘We give thanks for this regulation of Yours!’ (repeated 23 times)

‘You have removed the ambiguities of the imperial constitutions!’37 (23 times)

‘Pious emperors thus wisely plan!’ (26 times)

‘You wisely provide for lawsuits. You provide for the public peace!’ (25 times)

‘Let many copies of the Code be made to be kept in the governmental offices!’ (10 times)

‘Let them be kept under seal in the public bureaux!’ (20 times)

‘In order that the established laws may not be falsified, let many copies be made!’ (25 times)

‘In order that the established laws may not be falsified, let all copies be written out in letters!’38 (18 times)

‘To this copy which will be made by the constitutionaries, let no annotations upon the law be added!’ (12 times)

‘We request that copies to be kept in the imperial bureaux shall be made at public expense!’ (16 times)

‘We ask that no laws be promulgated in reply to supplications!’ (21 times)

‘All the rights of landowners are thrown into confusion by such surreptitious actions!’ (17 times)

A ceremony introducing a new compendium of law was a highly meaningful moment for the Roman state. We’ve already seen the role that education and self-government played in the traditional Roman self-image. For Roman society as a whole, written law possessed a similarly loaded significance. Again in the Romans’ own view of things, its existence made Roman society the best of all possible means of ordering humanity. Above all, written law freed men from the fear of arbitrary action on the part of the powerful (the Latin word for freedom – libertas – carried the technical meaning ‘freedom under the law’). Legal disputes were treated on their merits; the powerful could not override the rest. And Christianization merely strengthened the ideological importance ascribed to written law. For whereas Christian intellectuals could criticize as elitist the moral education offered by the grammarian, and hold up the uneducated Holy Man from the desert as an alternative figure of virtue, the law was not open to the same kind of criticism. It protected everyone in their designated social positions. It also had a unifying cultural resonance, since God’s law, whether in the form of Moses and the Ten Commandments or Christ as the new life-giving law, was central to Judaeo-Christian tradition. In ideological terms, therefore, it became easy to portray all-encompassing written Roman law – as opposed to elite literary culture – as the key ingredient of the newly Christian Empire’s claim to uphold a divinely ordained social order.39

Reading between the lines, however, the Theodosian Code, in both ceremony and content, can also take us to the heart of the political limitations within the late Roman system. One such limitation is implicit in the original Latin text of the acclamations, but hidden in the English translation, English being unable to distinguish between the singular and the plural ‘you’. The acclamations were all addressed to both the emperor Theodosius II, ruler of the east, and his younger first cousin Valentinian III, ruler of the west. Both were members of the Theodosian dynasty, and the original issuing of the Code in the east in 437 was carefully timed to coincide with a marriage alliance between the two branches, Valentinian marrying Theodosius’ daughter Eudoxia. Marriage and law code together highlighted unity in the Roman world, with eastern and western emperors functioning in perfect harmony. As its name implies, though, all the hard work behind the Theodosian Code had actually been done in Constantinople, by commissioners appointed by Theodosius.40 And the fact that Theodosius was the dominant partner here underscores a fundamental problem in the structure of power within the late Empire. For the administrative and political reasons discussed in Chapter 1, the imperial office had to be divided. Harmony between co-rulers was possible if one was so predominant as to be unchallengeable. The relationship between Theodosius and Valentinian worked happily enough on this basis, as had that between Constantine and various of his sons between the 310s and the 330s. But to function properly, the Empire required more or less equal helmsmen. A sustained inferiority was likely to be based on an unequal distribution of the key assets – financial and military – and if one was too obviously subordinate, the politically important factions in his realm were likely to encourage him to redress the balance – or, worse, encourage a usurper. This pattern had, for example, marred Constantius II’s attempts to share power with Gallus and Julian in the 350s.

Equal emperors functioning together harmoniously was extremely difficult to achieve, and happened only rarely. For a decade after 364, the brothers Valentinian I and Valens managed it, and so did Diocletian, first with one other emperor from 286, then with three from 293 to 305 (Diocletian’s so-called Tetrarchy). But none of these partnerships produced lasting stability, and even power-sharing between brothers was no guarantee of success. When they succeeded to the throne, the sons of Constantine I proceeded to compete among themselves, to the point that Constantine II died invading the territory of his younger brother Constans. Diocletian’s Tetrarchy, likewise, worked well enough during his political lifetime, but broke down after his abdication in 305 into nearly twenty years of dispute and civil war, which was ended only by Constantine’s defeat of Licinius in 324.

In fact, the organization of central power posed an insoluble dilemma in the late Roman period. It was an administrative and political necessity to divide that power: if you didn’t, usurpation, and often civil war, followed. Dividing it in such a way as not to generate war between rivals was, however, extremely difficult. And even if you solved the problem for one generation, it was pretty much impossible to pass on that harmony to your heirs, who would lack the habits of trust and respect that infused the original arrangement. Consequently, in each generation the division of power was improvised, even where the throne was passed on by dynastic succession. There was no ‘system’, and whether power was divided or not, periodic civil war was inescapable. This, it must be stressed, wasn’t just a product of the personal failings of individual emperors – although the paranoia of Constantius II, for example, certainly contributed to the excitement. Essentially, it reflected the fact that there were so many political concerns to be accommodated, such a large spread of interested landowners within the much more inclusive late Empire, that stability was much harder to achieve than in the old Roman conquest state, when it had been only the Senate of Rome playing imperial politics.

In many ways, then, periodic conflict at the top was the price to be paid for the Empire’s success in integrating elites across its vast domain. This is much better viewed, though, as a limitation than as a basic flaw: the Empire was not fundamentally undermined by it. It was a systemic fact of life that imparted something of a rhythm to imperial politics. Periods of political stability were likely to be punctuated by moments of conflict before a new regime, effectively recombining a sufficiently wide range of interests, managed to establish itself. Sometimes the conflict was brief, sometimes extended, as in the fall-out from the Tetrarchy, when it took two decades to narrow succession down to the line of Constantine. But the civil wars of the fourth century did not make the Empire vulnerable, for instance, to Persian conquest. Indeed, the propensity at that time to divide imperial authority achieved a better outcome than the refusal to do so had in the midthird, when twenty legitimate emperors and a host of usurpers each averaged just two years in power.

A second major political limitation of the Roman world emerges from a closer look at the Senate’s ceremonial greeting to the Theodosian Code. Even if the irregularity in the number of repetitions suggests that the senators’ enthusiasm may have run away with them at times, the specificity of the comments relating to the Code itself indicates that the individual acclamations were carefully scripted. The closest modern analogy for such a prescriptive line in public ceremonial is provided by the proceedings of the old annual congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in its pre-1989 days. Amongst other things, these involved stage-managed, mutually congratulatory, applause at the end of the Party Secretary’s address. The audience roared its approval, and then the speaker stood up to applaud back: presumably congratulating the audience on its good sense in recognizing the terrific value of whatever he had just said. In the case of the Theodosian Code, the Roman Senate ran to a more ambitious script, but the underlying message was the same. Both were highly public celebrations of a proclaimed ideological unity, based on a claim to a perfection grounded in the structures – here, particularly the legal ones – of the state. Public life in the Roman Empire, I would argue, is best understood as working like that of a one-party state, in which loyalty to the system was drilled into you from birth and reinforced with regular opportunities to demonstrate it. A couple of important differences, however, are worth underlining. Unlike the Soviet state, which lasted only about seventy years and faced powerful ideological competition, totalitarian and non-totalitarian, the Roman state lasted for half a millennium and operated for the most part entirely unchallenged. The resonance of Roman superiority imbued every facet of public life throughout an individual’s lifetime.

As with any one-party system, though, this one had its limitations too. Free speech, for instance, was to some extent restricted. Given that everyone was fully committed to the ideology of Unity in Perfection, it was only on the level of personality (rather than policy) that disagreement could be allowed.41 Its unchallenged ideological monopoly made the Empire enormously successful at extracting conformity from its subjects, but it was hardly a process engaged in voluntarily. The spread of Roman culture and the adoption of Roman citizenship in its conquered lands resulted from the fact that the Empire was the only avenue open to individuals of ambition. You had to play by its rules, and acquire its citizenship, if you were to get anywhere.

The one-party state analogy points us to two further drawbacks of the system. First, active political participation was very narrowly based. To participate in the workings of the Roman Empire, you had to belong to the wealthier landholding classes. It’s impossible to put an exact figure on this group, but its defining features are clear enough. In the early Empire, it required meeting the property qualification for membership of your town council by owning enough land in one city territory and being able to afford to educate your children with a grammarian. This required a substantial income. St Augustine, before he was a saint, belonged to a minor gentry landowning family from the small town of Thagaste in North Africa. His family had no problem affording the grammarian’s fees, but he had an enforced gap year while his father got enough money together for him to be able to finish off his higher education with a rhetor in Carthage, so that his family’s level of wealth provides us with a good indicator of the cut-off point.42

In the later Empire, political and civic participation could be expressed in a wider variety of ways than had been available earlier. Some local landowners still dominated the few worthwhile positions on their city councils, many more joined the central imperial bureaucracy, and still others, the lesser gentry, were happy to serve in its provincial offices. The latter were called cohortales, and some, according to inscriptions from the city of Aphrodisias, were even wealthy enough to act as city benefactors. The late Empire also had a more developed legal system. Since the early third century, Roman law had applied to every inhabitant of the Empire, and there were usually plenty of openings for trained lawyers. These again came from the old curial classes, young hopefuls moving on from the grammarian to study law as part of their higher education. By the third quarter of the fourth century, as Christianity spread and attracted imperial patronage, the landowning classes likewise began to move, as we have seen, into the Church and soon came to dominate the episcopate. The first rhetorically-trained bishops I know of are Ambrose in the west and the Cappadocian Fathers (Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzus and Gregory of Nyssa) in the east, all ordained in about 370.43 This opening-up of a wider range of professions did not bring with it any significant changes in the amount of wealth required. All these professions still needed a traditional grounding with a grammarian.

The politically active landowning class probably amounted, therefore, to less than 5 per cent of the population. To this we might add another percentage or so for a semi-educated professional class, found particularly in the towns. Especially in imperial capitals, a somewhat broader group, by belonging to circus factions and taking part in vociferous demonstrations in the theatre – a means of expressing discontent with particular officials – were able to voice their opinion. They could also exercise an occasional veto by rioting, if they were really upset, but this kind of action never amounted to more than a rather blunt weapon against particular individuals or policies.44


THE VAST MAJORITY of the population – whether free, tied or slave – worked the land, however, and were more or less excluded from political participation. For these groups, the state existed largely in the form of tax-collectors making unwelcome demands upon their limited resources. Again, it is impossible to estimate precisely, but the peasantry cannot have mustered less than 85 per cent of the population. So we have to reckon with a world in which over four-fifths had little or no stake in the political systems that governed them. Indifference may well have been the peasants’ overriding attitude towards the imperial establishment. Across most of the Empire, habitation and population levels increased in the course of its history, as we have noted, and it is hard not to see this as an effect of the Pax Romana – the conditions of greater peace and stability that the Empire generated. On the other hand, patchy and sporadic peasant resistance, often to do with tax issues, certainly occurred, but manifested itself only in the form of a low-level, if endemic, banditry. Some areas did throw up the occasional bout of more sustained trouble. Isauria, the Cilician upland region of what is now south-western Turkey, was famous for its bandits, and one lot – the Maratacupreni – achieved particular fame in northern Syria by marauding the land in the guise of imperial tax-collectors and helping themselves to people’s possessions. That they were plausible gives some idea of what it could feel like to be taxed by the Roman state, but they eventually attracted too much official attention and were wiped out to a man (and woman, and child). The exclusion from – or only very partial inclusion in – the benefits of the Roman system that the majority of the population experienced was one of its core limitations, then, but nothing new. The Empire had always been run for the benefit of an elite. And while this made for an exploited peasantry and a certain level of largely unfocused opposition, there is no sign in the fourth century that the situation had worsened.45

The second, rather less obvious, drawback was potentially more significant, given the peasantry’s underlying inability to organize itself for sustained resistance. To understand it, we need to consider for a moment the lifestyles of the Roman rich. As we have seen, they spent some of their time on matters of state, whether as local councillors collecting tax, as relatively senior bureaucratic functionaries (cohortales or palatini), or as semi-retired imperial bureaucrats. But these activities occupied only a limited amount of their time. By the year 400, the average length of service in many of the central departments of state had declined to no more than ten years: hardly a lifetime, even when life expectancy was considerably lower than today. What they did the rest of the time, and what provided the underlying focus of their lives, emerges clearly, once again, from the correspondence of Symmachus. He belonged, of course, to the super-rich, so that the scale of his other activities is unrepresentative. The nature of these activities, though, is entirely typical.

There were other forms of wealth in the Roman world apart from landowning; money could be made from trade and manufacture, the law, influence-peddling and so on. But landowning was the supreme expression of wealth, and, as in pre-industrial England, those who made money elsewhere were quick to invest it in estates – because, above all, land was the only honourable form of wealth for a gentleman. This was as much practical as the product of snobbery. Land was an extremely secure investment, and in return for the original outlay estates offered a steady income in the form of annual agricultural production. In the absence of stock markets, and given the limited and more precarious investment opportunities offered by trade and manufacture, land was the gilt-edged stock of the ancient world (and indeed of all worlds, pretty much, prior to the Industrial Revolution). This dictated many of the concerns of upper-class Roman life.

First and foremost, landowners needed to keep the output of their estates up to scratch. A piece of land was in itself only a potential source of revenue; it needed to be worked, and worked efficiently, to produce a good annual income. The right crops had to be grown, for a start. Then, investment of time, effort and capital always offered the possibility of what in pre-Industrial England was termed ‘improvement’: a dramatic increase in production. Roman landowners spent much of their lives checking on the running of their estates, either directly or through agents. The first five letters of the Symmachus collection were written, for instance, while he was on an extended tour of his central and southern Italian holdings in 375, looking to maximize his income. As he wrote to his father, ‘Our estates which are in disorder require to be looked into in all their particulars . . . In fact, it has now become customary to provide for a countryside which used to be a provider.’ Later letters continue to refer periodically to revenue problems, and, in the case of someone as rich as Symmachus, distance added extra ones. Estates in Sicily and North Africa were always more problematic than those closer to home.46 It was more efficient, likewise, to work one large rather than two small tracts, so that the canny landowner was always on the lookout for opportunities either to buy suitable extra land, or arrange mutually advantageous swaps. Again, Symmachus’ letters in particular, but late Roman sources in general, show that much time and effort went into buying and selling suitable plots.47

There was also a host of legal problems. As in Dickens’s England, wills were often disputed. Since land, unlike other forms of wealth, was not easily divisible into still profitable portions, parents often faced the choice of either handing over shares in the income of an intact estate, or of favouring one heir over the others by giving him the whole estate. Either way, things could get nasty, or complicated, especially when the heirs with shares came in turn to decide what to do with their stakes after their deaths. Much effort had to go into wills and codicils so as to define the exact solution that the testator was after, and to make sure that it couldn’t be challenged. Not surprisingly, Symmachus followed changes in inheritance law closely, and wills are frequently mentioned in his letters.48 Roman landowners played all the usual tricks. For instance, Symmachus’ father transferred to him ownership of one estate on the River Tiber early, to avoid the creditors who might gather after his death.49 Marriage was in this context much more than the romantic coupling of individuals in love. It involved the establishment of a new household requiring its own economic base. A suitable match had to be found, and a settlement made, with both parties usually contributing to the new couple’s financial well-being. One letter refers to a certain Fulvius, ‘for a long time of an age to marry’, who had been lucky enough to nab the sister of a certain Pompeianus: ‘she is not from a less good family than him, and has perhaps the greater wealth’.50

Marriage settlements, likewise, offered lawyers the opportunity to make fat fees. Symmachus’ own marriage brought him property from his father-in-law’s patrimony, which, because it had been transferred, was not confiscated by the state when the latter was prosecuted for fraud.51 Further legal problems were thrown up by the tax system. One of the things that patrons were often approached for was a reduction in tax bills. There are no known examples of landowners, even with excellent connections, being let off tax entirely, but many won reductions. All reductions were, however, precarious in that if your patron lost power, then the benefits that accrued to you might also be lost. There was thus huge scope for landowners to quarrel with the staff of the Praetorian Prefect’s office about what tax reductions might apply and for how long, and what liabilities had already been met. And despite all the care taken with wills and marriage settlements, the fall of a patron could lead to quarrels about rights of ownership. Symmachus’ correspondence, not least his official letters as Urban Prefect of Rome, provide plentiful instances of this kind of dispute.52

But if being a landowner involved a host of responsibilities, it had its pleasures too. Burdensome though owning lots of houses might be administratively, as long as one had the income, there were endless opportunities for remodelling and redecorating. One letter from Symmachus to his father rattles on about the new marble revetments for his house – so cunningly done that you would have thought them made from a single piece. He was also very proud of some columns that looked like expensive Bithynian marble but had cost him virtually nothing. And on it goes. A new bath-house for his Sicilian estate is mentioned in many letters, and many others refer to odd bits of work being done here and there throughout his lifetime. One letter complains about the builders taking for ever in his house on the Tibur.53 Some things never change.

After your house or houses had been made suitably comfortable and adorned with the latest fashions (not least, in fourth-century Britain, the installation of colour mosaics), there was all the pleasure of actually living in them. Symmachus particularly loved his villa at Baiae on the Bay of Naples, in many of his letters extolling the beauties of the scenery and food (especially in the autumn). In 396 he spent a particularly pleasant few months between April and December at one after another of his properties at Formia, Cumae, Pozzuoli, Baiae, Naples and Capri. Some of these are still favoured celebrity getaways. He and his wife also had a home on the Tiber just downriver from Rome, which they lived in when Symmachus needed to be in town on business. A favourite pastime of the Roman landed gentry, as of their peers at so many times and places, was hunting, for which a little place just on the edge of the hills or close to a forest was just the thing.54 Thus, strategically located properties could offer the landowner all the pleasures of the different seasons.55

Your country house – or houses – also provided the backdrop for the other joys of upper-class life. Symmachus often extols the pleasures of working on ancient Latin texts in the seclusion of one or other of his retreats. In one letter, he declares, he has been much too busy with his studies to write; and he also sometimes wrote to friends for copies of works he couldn’t find, while describing what he had been up to.56 Sometimes we find him with good friends staying at their own retreats close by – less often, the friends staying with him – which permitted frequent exchanges of epistolary compliments, not to mention picnics and dinner parties.57 The health of friends and relatives was a frequent topic, one minor illness requiring multiple missives of inquiry within the space of twenty-four hours. From his daughter, who was clearly a little delicate, he demanded at one point daily bulletins about her health, recommending in return various dietary cures.58

The lifestyle of Symmachus and his friends provides a blueprint for that of the European gentry and nobility over much of the next sixteen hundred years. Leisured, cultured and landed: some extremely rich, some with just enough to get by in the expected manner, and everyone perfectly well aware of who was who. And all engaged in an intricate, elegant dance around the hope and expectation of the great wealth that marriage settlement and inheritance would bring. Symmachus and his friends may have enjoyed editing Latin texts rather than painting watercolours and learning Italian, and their notions of such things as childhood and gender may have been rather different, but there is certainly a touch of Jane Austen in togas about the late Roman upper crust.

A FURTHER LIMITATION imposed by the Roman imperial system stems from this elegant, leisured and highly privileged lifestyle. It rested upon the massively unequal distribution of landed property: as noted earlier, less than 5 per cent of the population owned over 80 per cent, and perhaps substantially more. And at the heart of this inequality was the Roman state itself, in that its laws both defined and protected the ownership rights of the property-owning class to whose upper echelons Symmachus belonged. Its land registration systems were the ultimate arbiter of who owned – and hence who did not own – land, and its criminal legislation rigorously defended owners against the hostile attentions of those left out in the economic cold.59 The fifth-century historian Priscus records a much quoted conversation with a Roman merchant who had fought for the barbarian Huns. The talk ebbed back and forth on what was good and bad about Roman and Hunnic societies, until Priscus hit the nail on the head:

Amongst the Romans there are many ways of giving freedom. Not only the living but also the dead bestow it lavishly, arranging their estates as they wish; and whatever a man has willed for his possessions at his death is legally binding. My [Roman-turned- Hun] acquaintance wept and said that the laws were fair and the Roman polity was good . . .

Both parties eventually agreed on two points: first, that Roman law generated a superior society; and second, that its chief beneficial effect was to guarantee the rights of property-holders to dispose of their assets as they saw fit.60 This wasn’t an isolated opinion. Remember the acclamations of the Roman Senate – the senators, too, were pretty clear that the overall effect of the Theodosian Code had been to protect ‘the rights of landowners’ (see p. 128).

A huge amount of Roman law dealt precisely with property: basic ownership, modes of exploiting it (selling, leasing for longer or shorter terms, simple renting and sharecropping), and its transfer between generations through marriage settlements, inheritance and special bequests. The ferocity of Roman criminal law, likewise, protected ownership: death was the main punishment for theft – certainly, for anything beyond petty pilfering. Again, we can see a resemblance here to later ‘genteel’ societies based on similarly unequal distributions of landed wealth in an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. When Jane Austen was writing her elegant tales of love, marriage and property transfer, you could be whipped (for theft valued at up to 10d), branded (for theft up to 4s 10d) or hanged (theft over 5 shillings). In eighteenth-century London an average of twenty people were hanged each year.61

The Roman state had to advance and protect the interests of these landowning classes because they were, in large measure, the same people who participated in its political structures. This didn’t mean that there weren’t occasional conflicts between the state and individual landowners, or even whole groups of them. Landowning families sometimes lost their estates by confiscation if they ended up on the wrong side of a political dispute, for instance. (This didn’t necessarily mean that they were ruined for ever: as in the medieval world, restoring confiscated lands was a favoured way for a subsequent ruler to win a family’s loyalty.62) Nonetheless, as we have seen, the state relied on the administrative input of its provincial landowning classes at all levels of the governmental machine, and in particular to collect its taxes – the efficient collection of which hung on the willingness of these same landed classes to pay up.

This delicate balance manifested itself in two ways. First, and most obviously, taxes on agriculture could not rise so high that landowners would opt out of the state system en masse and attempt to frustrate its operation. As we have seen, there is plenty of evidence that emperors were aware that the way to a landowner’s heart was to tax gently. In the mid-360s, the emperors Valentinian and Valens started their joint reign with a financial charm offensive. Taxes were held stable for three years, then cut in the fourth, because, as their spokesman put it, ‘a light hand in taxation is a boon shared by all who are nurtured by the earth’. With a (very modern) flourish, they also promised, ‘if revenues turned out as expected’, to cut them again in the fifth.63 Second, the landowners’ elite status and lifestyles depended upon a property distribution so unequal that the have-nots had a massive numerical advantage – which should surely have led to a redistribution of wealth unless some other body prevented it. In the fourth century, this other body was, as it had been for centuries, the Roman state. Landowners could generally rely on its ability to counterbalance their numerical weakness by enforcing the laws in their favour. If the state ceased to be able to do this – should it, for instance, start to lack the brute power to enforce its property laws – then landowners would have no choice but to search for another agency that could perform the same role in its place.

We might understand the participation of the landowners in the Roman system, therefore, as a cost-benefit equation. What it cost them was the money they paid annually into the state coffers. What they got in return was protection for the wealth on which their status was based. In the fourth century, benefit hugely outweighed cost. But, as we shall see, should the taxman become too demanding, or the state incapable of providing protection, then the loyalty of the landowning class could be up for renegotiation.

The Balance Sheet

IT HAS BEEN a long journey of discovery, but the evolution of the Roman Empire up to about AD 300 is finally coming into focus. On the one hand, we are dealing with an historical phenomenon of extraordinary power. Built originally on military might, the Empire deployed, across the vastness separating Hadrian’s Wall from the Euphrates, an all-encompassing ideology of superiority. By the fourth century, subjected peoples had so internalized the Roman way of life that the original conquest state had evolved into a commonwealth of thoroughly Roman provincial communities.

But this extraordinary state also had major drawbacks. Distance, primitive communications and a limited capacity to process data hamstrung the operation of its systems. Except in the field of taxation, the state was fundamentally reactive, generally drawn into situations by groups seeking to take advantage of its power. Its economy produced an output not much above subsistence. And in political terms, the number of people clearly benefiting from the Empire’s existence was small. (We have just glimpsed the massively privileged lives led by the small Roman landowning class.)

For all this, there is no sign in the fourth century that the Empire was about to collapse. The adjustment called for after fifty years of turmoil caused by the rise of Sasanian Persia was neither straightforward nor easy, but a military, financial, political and bureaucratic transformation did at last, more or less organically, generate an enlarged state machine capable of dealing at one and the same time with Persia and with the consequences of 300 years of internal evolution. There was, of course, a price to be paid. The state confiscated local funds, breaking up the unity of the old self-governing towns. It also proved necessary to divide the ultimate power between two or more individuals, even though this could not but generate regular tension and periodic civil war.

Nonetheless, the late Empire was essentially a success story. The rural economy was mostly flourishing, and unprecedented numbers of landowners were keen to fill the offices of state. As the response to the Persians showed, the Roman imperial structure was inherently rigid, with only a limited and slow-moving bureaucratic, economic and political capacity to mobilize resources in the face of a new threat. But the Persian challenge had been successfully seen off, and the overwhelming impression the Roman state gave was one of continuing unmatchable power. It was not, however, destined to be left to its own devices. While fourth-century Romans continued to look on Persia as the traditional enemy, a second major strategic revolution was about to unfold to the north.

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